Googling the flu and going high speed cable in China

A lot more people are Googling the flu, but it remains unclear whether that means a lot more people are getting it.

It's flu season in the northern hemisphere, and in this connected world, when people get that cough or headache, their first trip is often to check their symptoms on Google even before the acetaminophen or lemon tea.

"Google searches are surprisingly good at estimating how many people have the flu at a given time," says Will Oremus, who has been writing about this for Slate.

Google tracks flu searches and uses an algorithm to estimate just how bad the outbreak is. Right now Google's estimate is grim.

"The C.D.C. was reporting that this was on track to be a moderately severe flu season," Oremus says. "Google, on the other hand, was showing that it was already out of the ordinary -- that tons of people had the flu, way more than the C.D.C.'s data showed."

But we should temper reactions with a dose of recent history.

"In 2009, during the H1N1 -- the sort of 'swine flu' pandemic -- Google's algorithm didn't work that well," Oremus says. "It seems to work great in normal flu years, but maybe not quite as well in a year when things are out of the ordinary. And this year seems to be one of those years."

An outfit called "Flu Near You" also uses crowd-sourced data to map the spread of the creeping grunge.


A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage was the promise if you voted for Hoover. How about a fast, fiber-optic internet connection in every new house? Don't get too excited, U.S. readers -- we're talking about parts of China. A new Chinese government policy will require the fast connection in any new building in communities where there is already a fiber optic main cable running through.

"This essentially solves the last-mile problem, that is, getting the fiber from, often times, a ring or under city streets to people's homes," says Cyrus Farivar, senior business editor at Ars Technica.

"China, of course, has a notorious internet filtration system," Farivar explains. "It's often called 'The Great Firewall of China.' So often, a lot of Chinese internet users don't have full access to things like Facebook, Twitter, many other types of websites that are banned or blocked in China. That being said, they will have very speedy access to lots of domestic websites, which are presumably allowed over there."

"Often, the fiber connections running through cities are controlled by an incumbent who has no particularly interest in connecting with homes that are expensive to serve," says Susan Crawford, fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and author of Captive Audience, a new book about the failings of telecom policy in the United States.

"So, only when it's in their economic interest, or if they're forced by some regulator to do it, are they going to build. Here, in America, we've got neither competition, nor government policy ensuring homes have fiber connections."

Even the California city of Palo Alto at center of Silicon Valley couldn't agree last year on policy to get fiber optic lines to houses. Now it's possible this announcement in China is a Sputnik moment, when the U.S. saw what a rival did with a satellite which jump started the U.S. space program. However, Crawford is skeptical.

About 7.5 million American homes are attached to fiber optic data lines currently. The plan in China to is to connect 40 million within two years.

About the author

David Brancaccio is the host of Marketplace Morning Report. Follow David on Twitter @DavidBrancaccio

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