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!