Nov 24, 2008

Collective Intelligence: Google Can Do It. What Can Health Care Do?

Wikipedia, Youtube, Facebook, many times a day do you visit these pages? Don't know something? Wiki it. Want to watch something? Youtube it. Think you know someone? Facebook him. Want to voice an opinion? Blog it. The internet has become a very powerful source of information and better yet, it's a shared source of information that exhibits boundarilessness and speed.

But that's not all. Recent technologies and initiatives have harnessed the actual use of the internet as a form of collective intelligence, a form of group intelligence that results from the collaboration or competition of individuals. Like the cliche, "There is no "I" in Team," collective intelligence values in the input of all members for the good of the whole (information provided by

Several of the websites mentioned above take advantage of this very concept. Wikipedia is an open source collaborative that allows anyone and everyone to contribute encyclopedia entries on just about everything. Fact checking and reliability is also in the hands of anyone and everyone around the world. While the title Youtube may suggest vanity in creating your own 15 minutes of fame, it is also a shared pool that is accessible to everyone. Perhaps Wetube is a more accurate name.

Collective intelligence has three main facets: cooperation, coordination, and cognition. Wikipedia, Youtube, and Facebook have thrived on cooperation and coordination by creating virtual communities around shared interests and widely spreading information. Only recently has the cognition facet of collective intelligence begun to take form.

The cognition facet of collective intelligence allows for the study of behaviors and capturing the force of those behaviors. This facet transforms the internet beyond a shared pool of knowledge into a powerful tool for social change. Let's consider some examples.

In September, Science published an article about reCAPTCHA, a free CAPTCHA service that helps to digitize books. A CAPTCHA is a Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart. We have actually all come across CAPTCHAs- they are used by several websites to verify that the entity filling out a web form is a person and not a machine. Does retyping a distorted jumble of letters and numbers sound familiar?

Consider this. Suppose it take 10 seconds for each person to retype the jumbled combination, and that there are millions of people on the internet at any given time of the day. In this context, the minuscule 10 seconds of "wasted time", in aggregate becomes an enormous untapped pool of productive man hours.

Now, consider this. The Internet Archive and Google Books Project are currently digitizing books with a crew of expert transcribers and sophisticated computers. Computers are able to do most of the work, but when it comes to difficult to read yellowed distorted texts, computers are only able to decipher about 20% of the words accurately. Human transcribers are over 99% accurate, but hiring them can be expensive.

Combining the large pool of productive man hours and the great need for humans to perform what machines can't, you get reCAPTCHA. reCAPTCHA is being used by 40,000 websites and demonstrates that old printed material can be transcribed word by word by having people solve CAPTCHAs throughout the web with accuracy over 99%. More importantly, Luis von Ahn and his reCAPTCHA technology are capitalizing on internet behaviors to help digitize books and make human knowledge more accessible. Thank you collective intelligence.

Can the health care industry take advantage of collective intelligence too? Google has taken a stab at it. Google has become the go-to gateway of information. And as we use it to research information for our specific purposes, Google can use our "Google it" attitude to collect information about us! In a unique pairing of the internet and public health, Google has been able to track the spread of influenza 10 days faster than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) by tracking the number of searches for words like "flu", "flu symptoms", and "influenza".

Source: New York Times

Since the data collected by the CDC is dependent on information collected by patients interacting with health care through doctor visits and lab tests, the CDC's ability to follow flu outbreaks is slower. More information about the flu trend that, Google's philanthropic division, is tracking can be found at

Google has helped to prove that health care can benefit from the power of collective intelligence. What else is possible? Please share your thoughts!


Anonymous said...

Good post, as usual.

We should get patients involved in putting their own medical records online. I am a fan of EMRs. Patients who are involved in uploading their own EMRs onto the electronic database, alongside their physicians, become more fluent and familiar with their own health and conditions. Then they'll be more willing to take ownership of their health and health records.

Anonymous said...

That's not such a good idea because patients worry about privacy when they upload stuff like medical records onto the internet. And some patients are not able to upload their info cuz they don't have internet access or because they are handicapped or because they don't have the time. but it's good way to get general public to be more aware of their health.

Jose said...

None of the softwares for medical records that I've seen look user-friendly. Google or another company should develop a user-friendly software for all physicians and hospitals. Preferably, a medical record system that can link up to reliable medical databases with relevant medical information.

pucks44 said...

Haha.. in order to post a comment, i have to type a CAPTCHA word... Google is using me again!

The flu example was really cool. Kindof scary how much information google has access to...

Valerie said...

I think that this is a facinating concept. For those people that are part of the "Google Era" the CDC example really hits home. With any type of research in health care there is a significant lag time which has often been an argument against evidenc-based medicine. That is, it takes too much time for the eveidence to be accepted and utilized in practice. I think the answer to some of the health care problems rests in solutions developed by Google or similar companies who are in tune with what customers want. They have the ability to make use-friendly solutions and can create tools that would be attractive to health care consumers.

Anonymous said...

The OED doesn't accept boundarilessness as a word... or boundariless even.... although I don't completely discount it as a real word... but perhaps a better choice is boundless?

Edwina said...

One of the big attractions of "life on the internet" is that you can search out people with similar interests all over the world, and these people just might be interested in how you feel, what you think,what you want out of life and how it is you do what you do. Taping in to the collective intelligence as well as contributing to it. That is a power and priviledge that was previously impossible for the average Joe.
Healthcare entities should take full advantage of gleaning information about the knowlege level, interests, concerns and desires that the public has about healthcare, so that they can influence the future of health care instead of having to be passive consumers of what we as healthcare professionals decide will be the choices in the products and delivery of healthcare.

Anonymous said...

Great blog eva! I will be sure to check this more often. You have some very interesting entries here. Do you stumble upon these during work? =)

Eva said...

Updated on CAPTCHAS: "Socially adjusted CAPTCHAS" read here