How Google Maps of ‘Cancer’ and Other Search Terms Track America’s Health

October 25, 2017, 8:24 PM UTC

You can find a lot of things using Google, though sadly the cure for cancer won’t likely be one of them. But a new initiative at the search giant may help provide a better understanding of how the disease and other American health challenges—like diabetes, depression, stroke, and obesity—impact our lives. The project, Searching for Health, tracks health-related searches on a map and over time, and will updated regularly in the future.

Created in a collaboration between Schema, a Seattle-based design firm, Google News Lab, the company’s initiative to provide information for journalism, and the data visualization journalist Alberto Cairo, Searching for Health, tracks health searches at a very local level and compares the data with statistics supplied by the Center for Disease Control (CDC). The tool was released earlier this month, and lets users examine the perception of diseases with actual prevalence, though the site’s findings can be more helpful than that.

For example, it appears that some health issues—like cancer, heart disease, stroke, and depression—have higher than usual occurrences where people make higher than average searches for the terms. Meanwhile, others—like obesity and diabetes—have an inverse effect; higher interest relates to fewer occurrences.

But where the data hits hardest is on a scatterplot where interest levels and mortality rates are plotted. Using tools like this can reveal things like how Nashville’s mortality rate for cancer is the highest in the country, despite its interest in the disease being slightly above average. Another example is how, Layfayette, Ind. has among the fewest deaths related to obesity, though the city’s interest in the topic is the highest in the country.

The website lists health data reaching back to 2004, though that was the early years of Google’s search business and fewer people were online then. As a result, the more recent the information Searching for Health has, the better the service will be. Moving forward, it’s unclear how researchers and journalists will use the resource, but as the tool continues to gather data, its likely that it will not only teach us about health, but also about how people think about it.