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Google search behaviour a function of GDP?

11 April 2012

Internet users from countries with a higher per capita gross domestic product (GDP) are more likely to search for information about the future than information about the past, according to an analysis of Google search queries by a team at UCL.

The findings, published on April 5 in the journal Scientific Reports, suggest there may be a link between online behaviour and real-world economic indicators. Helen Susannah Moat, a research associate in UCL’s Department of Mathematics and one of the study authors, says the Internet is becoming ever more deeply interwoven into the fabric of global society.

 “Our use of this gigantic information resource is generating huge amounts of data on our current interests and concerns," she says. "We were interested in whether we could find cross-country differences in basic online search behaviour which could be linked to real world indicators of socio-economic wellbeing, such as per capita GDP.” The four-strong team examined Google search queries made by Internet users in 45 different countries in 2010, to calculate the ratio of the volume of searches for the coming year (‘2011’) to the volume of searches for the previous year (‘2009’), which they have dubbed the ‘future orientation index’.

The research team retrieved search volume data by accessing the Google Trends website, and analysed more than 45 billion search queries carried out worldwide. They compared the future orientation index to the per capita GDP of each country and found a strong tendency for countries in which Google users enquire more about the future to exhibit a higher GDP.

UCL visiting researcher Tobias Preis, also based at Boston University, offers two explanations for this relationship between search activity and GDP: The findings may reflect international differences in attention to the future and the past, where a focus on the future supports economic success, or they may reflect international differences in the type of information sought online, perhaps due to economic influences on available Internet infrastructure.

As use of the Internet and other technological systems grow, increasingly large amounts of data are being generated, the empirical analysis of which can provide insights into real-world social phenomena, from influenza epidemics to stock market trading volumes.

Steven Bishop, professor in Mathematics at UCL and one of the authors of this work, is currently coordinating a large scale European project called FuturICT, to examine how we can use such data to understand the complex behaviour of society. The project has a particular focus on the new dynamics of our social interactions in the presence of global technological networking, considering the catastrophes which can arise, such as the recent financial crisis, but also the opportunities offered by our increasing connectivity.

The project’s ambitious goals have brought together a wide range of European researchers, building bridges across traditional disciplinary and national boundaries. The project consortium was recently invited to put together a bid for 10 years of European Commission funding to support a 1 billion Euro research endeavour in this area.

It's good to text
An analysis of Internet searches might enable us to fathom the intricacies of global societies but that other element of mass communication - texting - has apparently a more down-to-earth benefit, which a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley has recently discovered. Text messaging often gets a bad press for contributing to poor spelling, illiteracy and high-risk behaviour such as reckless driving. But social welfare professor Adrian Aguilera has found an upside to texting, especially for people who feel stressed, isolated and lonely.

Aguilera, a clinical psychologist who treats many low-income Latinos for depression and other mental disorders, said his patients report feeling more connected and cared for when they receive text messages asking them to track their moods, reflect on positive interactions, and take their prescribed medications.

The project began in 2010 when Aguilera developed a customised Short Message Service (SMS) intervention programme, with the help of UCSF psychologist Ricardo Munoz, in which Aguilera’s patients were sent automated text messages prompting them to think and reply about their moods and responses to positive and negative daily interactions. The psychologists published the results of the project last year in the journal, Professional Psychology: Research and Practice.

Recent statistics bear out Aguilera’s outreach strategy. The 2011 Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project survey found that African American and Latino mobile phone owners send and receive more text messages than do Caucasians. Of the 2,277 adult mobile phone users surveyed by the Pew Foundation, the most active senders and receivers of text messages (at least 50 messages a day) were non-whites, who earned incomes below $30,000 and who did not graduate from high school.

Aguilera came up with the texting idea when he realised that many of his patients had difficulty applying the skills they learned in therapy to their daily lives. They could not afford laptops, electronic tablets or smart phones, but most had a basic mobile phone and a prepaid monthly plan.

“The people I wanted to impact directly didn’t have as much access to computers and the Internet,” says Aguilera, “so I thought about using mobile phones to send text messages to remind them to practice the skills covered in therapy sessions.” The feedback from patients offers new insight into the human need for regular contact or check-ins for mental health professionals, even if only through automated technology, Aguilera adds.

While the text-messaging sessions are designed to last only a certain number of weeks, about 75 percent of the patients requested that they continue receiving the messages. When the program stopped for a week due to technical problems, some really noticed the difference.

Les Hunt


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