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WWGD on Pandemic? Google Swine Flu Map Needs Editor

BY Tom Watson | Tuesday, April 28 2009

In the blast of social media noise, government warnings, blog posts, and breaking news updates this week on the expanding swine flu epidemic, one link seemed to carry some added weight: Google had posted a collaborative map to track the outbreak on a global basis.

"Follow the Swine Flu Pandemic in Real Time With Google Maps," urged tech blog Gizmodo. The Twitter recommendations were legion. News outlets from MSNBC to the Chicago Tribune cited the online map, with its virtual push-pins linked to suspected and confirmed cases.

Clearly, an example of a new paradigm of crowd-sourced reporting in a crisis, right? Perhaps. But there are a couple of serious problems with the much-hyped Google swine flu map: the Google team didn't put it up, and the map is fantastically inaccurate.

The online map was launched by a Google user identified as niman, described as "Biomedical Research from Pittsburgh, PA USA." And, of course, in its terms of service, Google explicitly disclaims any representation of accuracy with respect to maps created by its users.

Yet, the "Google map" was widely represented as being created by the search behemoth itself for the public good - as a leading digital tool for anyone wanting to track the epidemic in real time. It quickly garnered more than 131,000 views. And based on my own (unscientific) tracking of Twitter in the last 24 hours, many more posters included the Google map link than they did the official CDC site or the multi-agency federal site (both sites excellent and accurate).

It was also clear that the Google map lacked the one thing a more journalistic or official government effort would clearly have provided: an editor.

When I looked at the metropolitan New York area (where I live) for a an update, I was shocked to see a virtual sea of pink and purple markers stretching from Garden City in Nassau County to lower Manhattan and the Bronx. Wow, I thought, it's quickly gone way beyond those students from St. Francis Prep in Brooklyn who'd become ill after a spring break trip to Cancun.

Except it hadn't. Of 14 markers in and around New York, 11 were merely repeating the high school story from different sources. So much (for now) for the metro area surge. The same pattern is repeated in Southern California. And in Spain, which has reported exactly two cases of confirmed swine flu, the Google map shows a virtual Iberian disaster.

Sure, the Google map is an interesting experiment in collaborative reporting; yet it may be tricky for a company to let it stand as a branded effort, as one of its own products, given that the collaboration has produced a wildly inaccurate picture of the nascent pandemic - especially when its own team produced a well-regarded and more scientific flu trends map based on regional searches for symptoms and medical assistance.

And the Google map's dangerous ubiquity among the wired classes is proof that someone living ought to be at the controls during times of peril - not to control (old model) but to at least authenticate (new model).