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Politics Can Google searches predict where coronavirus cases will soon emerge?

23:05  29 october  2020
23:05  29 october  2020 Source:   washingtonpost.com

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Coronavirus cases have risen over the last few months in several regions of the world. The World Health Organization (WHO) has. When comparing figures from different countries it is important to bear in mind that not all governments are recording coronavirus cases and deaths in the same way.

There’s a great website called Spurious Correlations in which two obviously unrelated trends are juxtaposed to show how correlation (things lining up neatly) is not always a function of causation (those things actually being linked). There’s no connection between the divorce rate in Maine and per capita consumption of margarine, for example, even if those track with one another over time.

a group of people walking down a street: Servers deliver food to a table at a pop-up restaurant set up in New York's Times Square for “Taste of Times Square Week” on Oct. 23. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters) Servers deliver food to a table at a pop-up restaurant set up in New York's Times Square for “Taste of Times Square Week” on Oct. 23. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

On Tuesday, author Dan Sinker came across a correlation with a bit more heft. He compared Google searches for “loss of taste” in the United States with the number of coronavirus cases confirmed each day. The shape of the two curves match.

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There is good reason to think that these two things are linked. Loss of taste and smell are, by now, recognized as common symptoms of infection with the novel coronavirus. Should someone lose one of those senses, it’s understandable why they’d head to Google to figure out what was happening. The correlation between the two seems as though it probably has a causal link.

Google’s explored the idea that its search data could be used to trace illness before. At one point, the company explored using searches for influenza-related terms as a way to track the spread of the illness. It abandoned the experiment after finding that its predicted number of cases were substantially higher than reality.

Sinker’s tweet nonetheless made me curious about whether there was a consistent relationship between searches for those terms and case totals nationally or in states. Using Google’s online Trends tool and The Post’s coronavirus data set, I compared the two.

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Sometimes data analysis yields a truly stunning result. This was such a time.

Google provides search data as an index of peak activity in a period. So if, say, there are 3,000 searches for dinner Tuesday and 2,000 Wednesday, the value for Tuesday would be 100 and the value for Wednesday 67 — two-thirds of the peak. The day-by-day results can be volatile, so I used a seven-day average of that index. I decided to compare that to the seven-day average of new cases as a function of population, mostly because this helped make comparisons between regions easier.

Without further ado, here is the result for the United States overall.

chart, line chart, histogram

Just a remarkable overlap. Except, of course, for that first spike.

But that’s easily explained: The United States was barely doing any testing in March and April, as documented by the COVID Tracking Project. There were fewer confirmed cases back then because there were fewer conducted tests.

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Early in the pandemic, cases emerged by the hundreds in food processing facilities. The outbreaks disrupted the country’s meat supply and led some of the hardest-hit plants to Other large outbreaks have emerged on farms, in fruit or vegetable processing facilities and at plants where pet food is made.

chart, line chart, histogram

That void is less apparent when we look at states which were among those hardest hit at the outset of the pandemic. In New York, for example, there was a spike in searches for “loss of smell” or “loss of taste” right before the first surge in confirmed cases. The peak in searches came about 12 days before the peak in case totals.

chart, line chart, histogram

In New Jersey, which was also among the hardest-hit early states, the pattern is the same. You can also see that the recent uptick in the state was matched by a slight increase in searches.

chart, histogram

The first state in which community spread of the virus was confirmed was California. That state has seen two surges, a small one in the spring and another as part of the summer’s surge focused on Sun Belt states. Again, there’s an increase in searches for loss of taste and smell shortly before the increase in cases. The Google data even seems to reflect the double-peak the state went through, though that may be an artifact of the data.

chart, histogram

One of the states hit hardest over the summer was Arizona. The state hit its peak in searches for loss of taste and smell shortly before the state hit its peak in new cases. More recently, an increase in new cases was preceded by an increase in searches for those terms.

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chart, histogram

Notice that Arizona had a spike in searches for sensory loss in the spring, mirroring the national data. (States which were harder hit at the outset of the pandemic were also ones where more testing was deployed, helping to explain why there’s less difference between Google searches and cases in New York and New Jersey.)

So did Florida, where the summer’s surge was also preceded by a spike in Google searches.

chart, histogram

In Texas, both the summer surge and its more recent increase in new cases trails increases in searches for losses of taste and smell.

chart, histogram

This pattern doesn’t hold universally, it’s important to note. In Wisconsin, the recent surge in cases actually preceded an uptick in searches about sensory loss.

chart

In other states, the Google search data are too spotty to pick out any trends.

In larger states and nationally, though, the correlation is striking. We’ve repeatedly seen increases in searches for information about losing one’s sense of taste or smell shortly before states saw surges in new coronavirus cases.

It’s not necessarily causation, but it’s hard to believe that it isn’t.

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usr: 1
This is interesting!