Using Transactional Big Data for Epidemiological Surveillance: Google Flu Trends and Ethical Implications of ‘Infodemiology’

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterAcademic


This chapter provides a critique of methodological developments in epidemiological surveillance of influenza enabled by digital technology. While public health surveillance conventionally relies on data from clinical and virological diagnosis or mortality rate statistics, approaches in ‘infodemiology’ (Eysenbach 2006) are based on big data retrieved from Internet sources. Such data indicating the health situation of a population are hence not biomedical data in a traditional sense, since the information may be derived from websites, news wires, or web search logs. After providing an overview of developments in epidemiological surveillance since the 1980s, the chapter discusses Google Flu Trends (GFT) as case study. GFT is an Influenza-surveillance application based on web search logs. From November 2008 until August 2015, it was offered by Google Inc. as public ‘nowcasting’ service with continuous updates. The relevant data are still being collected and provided to selected research institutions, but they are merely presented in retrospect. GFT uses search queries as indicators of Influenza-intensities. These queries may be related to a person’s medical condition, but they may as well be influenced by external factors such as news coverage. Moreover, the project is based on transactional big data which are exclusively available to Google Inc., selected academic or governmental institutions, and advertising customers. This chapter addresses the implications of such entanglements between public health services, emerging digital technologies and corporate objectives. In order to highlight which norms and values are articulated through GFT and to discuss its ethical implications, the chapter employs a pragmatist approach.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationEthics of Biomedical Big Data
EditorsBrent Mittelstadt, Luciano Floridi
Number of pages22
ISBN (Print)978-3-319-33525-4
Publication statusPublished - 2016

Publication series

SeriesLaw, Governance & Technology


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