Time-based Google Searches Can Reveal Nation’s Health

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The tendency to Google for forward-looking events or search the web for things that happened in the past is closely linked to the health of your nation’s economy according to recent research. A joint study,”Quantifying the Advantage of Looking Forward,” from scientists at University College London and Boston University has found a striking correlation between a country’s per capita gross domestic product and how future-oriented its citizens’ internet habits are.

“The digital traces left behind by our interactions with modern technology form extensive behavioural data sets which are accessible through data mining, offering unprecedented potential for a better understanding of collective human behaviour,” said Dr.Tobias Preis, researcher at Boston University and visiting lecturer at UCL.

Sifting through Google logs from 2010, Dr Preis and colleagues computed the ‘future orientation index’ or FOI for 45 countries based on whether their searches included years in the past or future. The results were interesting: economies with higher GDPs exhibited equally higher scores in the future orientation index.

The countries to score highest on this index of online search habits was Switzerland with 1.43 and Australia with 1.42 while Vietnam, Morocco and Pakistan scored, 0.23, 0.28 and 0.36 respectively.

The findings suggest there may be a link between online behaviour and real-world economic indicators. “The internet is becoming ever more deeply interwoven into the fabric of global society,” said Helen Susannah Moat, research associate and co-author of the study.

The level of future-oriented internet searches amongst Irish citizens grew from 1.05 in 2008 to 1.17 in 2009, however, this dropped to 0.95 in 2010, when we began, it seems, to look more towards the past.

“We see two leading explanations for this relationship between search activity and GDP,” says Preis. It may be that a focus on the future supports economic success or it could reflect economic influences on available internet infrastructure in these economies.

Blaine Cook Introduces Us To Webfinger

Blaine Cook was in charge of building Twitter for the first couple of years of its existence before moving on to pastures new. At the moment, he is working with Osmosoft which is the open source innovation arm of BT. Last month, he came to Galway, Ireland to speak at BlogTalk 2010 about another one of his current projects, Webfinger.

The current situation that we have at the moment with the walled gardens of Facebook, Twitter, and so on can be likened to a type of sharecropping. In that scenario, you get to work on the farm, but you don’t get to own the farm. The owners of the social networking platforms, like the landowners of old, get to call the shots, and at any point you can lose your farm. Or, in our modern world version, you lose access to your accrued data and any kind of community you may have created. As Blaine says, “It’s a very tenuous situation to be in.”

How do we manage having control over our network and be able to create rich networks?

“Social networks are premised on this idea of the network effect. If you have a single fax machine in the world, it is not a very useful device. But if everybody now has a fax machine, it is now a very powerful communications device. So, if you’ve got one user on your social network, it’s not a useful social network. But if you’ve got all 150 million users from Twitter and 500 million users from Facebook, you can use your social network for, potentially, a much more powerful and engaging story. You can build much richer communities.”

So how do we get away from relying on Facebook and Twitter, and actually move towards a more internet-like approach where people can construct these networks themselves?

“The analogy from the past is that in the semi pre-internet days when the Internet existed but most people didn’t have access to it, there were a couple of providers: CompuServe, AOL, [Minitel in France, and a few elsewhere.] They all had e-mail facilities, but you couldn’t e-mail between them. If you wanted to send a message to someone and you’re on CompuServe, they had to be on CompuServe. Eventually we ended up in a situation where now we just use e-mail. These other networks don’t matter… because we moved to a technology, SMTP, the infrastructure that powers e-mails nowadays.”

How do we replicate this transformation with the current stage of the Web?

“How do we make it so that if I set up a photo sharing site I can share photos with someone that is on Flickr? Or say if I use software for my conference planning, I can share my conference planning on Lanyrd with someone not on Lanyrd without having to sign up with Lanyrd. There’s plenty of these sites and I don’t want to sign up for every single one of them, and I don’t want to duplicate my social network and do all of this work multiple times. These are the questions that have brought me to working on Webfinger.

“There is another challenge. Even if we accept that it’s okay to have one social network in charge of the whole world, the reality is that our real world existence is much more complicated than that. The reality is that we have very diverse interactions with people. You’ve got co-workers and you have family and you’ve got friends. If you’re a school teacher, you have co-workers and you have students. So we have all these complicated relationships with different people, and we actually present [ourselves] in a different way to them. We are performers in our own social existence, and we put on different masks and different identities to carry out these different interactions.

“Facebook is like a wedding from hell. Because it’s everybody you know, everybody you’ve ever met is just kind of hanging out. And if you were ever in a physical social space that would be like Facebook, it would be the most horrific experience you’ve ever had. Your mum who’s sitting next to your boss who’s sitting next to your first girlfriend who’s sitting next to your current wife, and then you have a couple of students from school or something. It’s a really, really broken situation.

“Really what we want are diverse networks that allow us to communicate in more rich ways and more specific ways.”

So where does Webfinger come in?

“The first problem that comes up is how do we deal with naming people? How do we deal with names and how do we address people? We have addresses for people in terms of postal addresses, through phone numbers, e-mail addresses. Your postal address is one of the first things you learn as a child. I am sure today kids would learn their phone numbers and e-mail addresses very early on. But we don’t have that for the social web.

“So, when we are thinking about these identity questions, the most important thing in all of them is not the technology that drives them, the data formats or any of the technical bits – that’s very, very secondary… There’s literally dozens of different ways to approach the technological side of things. But I think we lose sight, too often, of the social side of things… The thing that brought me specifically to Webfinger and the way that it works is thinking about how people use the Internet.

HTTP addresses and web URLs don’t really make sense to people. You have people googling for Yahoo and yahooing for Google. They don’t get the URLs but my grandmother is perfectly happy to e-mail me. She does that all the time, and she understands how to write down an e-mail address and contact me that way. What I wanted, essentially, was the usability of an e-mail address where you have a name and a place.

“So, how do we take this e-mail address which is name at place, and turn that into web URLs? Because we know how to work with web URLs. We know how to build technologies around them that allow us to do identity, to do data exchange, RSS and Atom feed syndication stuff – we know how to do that.

“Webfinger is really just a way to translate e-mail addresses to web URLs and that’s it… it takes literally minutes to set up for the simplest cases, so it is something that is very, very accessible. We’ve designed it to have minimal impact on the technology we need to use in your site to make it work, so it’s very adoptable.”

Webfinger is now supported by Google, Yahoo and AOL, and there is a chance that Microsoft may join the fray. At the beginning of the year, there were almost 1.5 billion e-mail users, which is an enormous base to bootstrap from. We will be talking to Blaine in the next couple of months to see how things are progressing.

You can watch this video of Blaine explaining more about Webfinger at BlogTalk 2010.

Interview: Nova Spivack On Facebook, Google And Microsoft – Who Will Triumph?

Nova Spivack was an initial angel investor in Klout, a social networks analytics tool, which quantifies people’s interests by measuring their influence on others and also who in turn influences them.

Nova is now working on Live Matrix which is being designed to navigate the Web by time instead of space.

“Basically all these things at the moment are happening in a perpetual present. There’s no sense of time on the Web. What Live Matrix is doing is trying to index what’s happening when at different times.”

With the increasing amount of video on the Web and expansion of such services as Ustream, more and more scheduled events, lectures, sports, and so on are being fed out onto the Web. Therefore it is becoming increasingly important to find out when these items start and finish. As more content appears with a temporal dimension, there is more of a need to find that material.

Nova adds, “The past two decades have been spent on the space dimension of the Web. That is, what’s where? What keywords are on what pages. What people are at what sites. What content is where. But now we’re looking at what’s when. I think that’s a huge, open, uncharted piece of the Web. It’s a big opportunity.”

In the first part of our interview with him, Nova talks about the potential winners and losers as Microsoft, Google and Facebook duke it out for world domination. In the second part of his interview, Nova discusses the fragmentation of Semantic Web technologies and what that means for all of us.

It is clear that Facebook and Google are stepping on one another’s turf and there is no way for them to avoid that happening. Nova thinks that Facebook will eventually triumph, but Google may not be safe in the number two slot.

Facebook will be the dominant player on the Internet because it already has a social networking structure on its side. Nova points out, “Neither Microsoft nor Google has a strong social networking brand that people use. They are both in this difficult position as being viewed by consumers as tools rather than as places. Facebook is a place. It’s a place where people are spending an increasing amount of their time.”

It is a lot easier for Facebook to build a search engine then it is for either Microsoft or Google to build a social network, let alone a social network of 500 million users. Also, Facebook has a social graph, and by using their ‘like’ system, they can gather even more information about what people are interested in and value. If they do it right, they could build a search engine far superior to either Google search or Bing. The only reason Facebook haven’t done it already is because they have been too busy trying to get their house in order.

But coming second is not the same thing as being safe. Google will need to watch themselves. As Nova warns, “If you look at Microsoft… they have people and senior executives who have a lot of experience in looking at a market they want to enter that has another leading player, and going in there and winning from a number two or number three position. In a way that’s what Microsoft is actually best at.”

What happens with these industry giants is very important for all of us. It is more than a drama being played out in the techy news services.

“I think it’s important to everybody who has an internet company and of course every user of the Internet. For those of us in the internet business, I think it’s interesting to see where these are going because it affects who we might partner with or what services we ought to be focusing on for integration of special features. Should we spend a lot of time SEOing into Google or should we spend more time SEOing into Facebook through the likes [system]?”

As it stands now, it is for Facebook to lose. Google and Microsoft are handicapped by being perceived as tools instead of places. Fortunately, they cannot make real use of the data they have acquired about us through Gmail and Hotmail without our permission. But as long as they stay in the game and can use the information and experience that they do have, they will always have a chance.

Interesting times.

The second part of this interview is also available. Nova Spivack also spoke at the BlogTalk event held in Cork in 2008. BlogTalk is returning to Ireland on 26-27 August; check out the speaker list.

The Best: Referencing John Herlihy From Google; Third-Level Education In Ireland; Doing What You Love

At the Digital Landscapes conference in Dublin last week, John Herlihy gave the audience a round-up of the corporate culture and attitudes at the company where he works, Google. In amidst the description of personnel and management reviews and how to handle dud projects, he pointed out that in a world with a population of 6.4 billion, good enough isn’t really any good at all. In the video of his remarks, he says in connection with the standards of performance required by individuals in the new economy at 3:07: “It’s not the best by your standards, it’s the best in the world standards. Don’t play League of Ireland football, play Champions League.”

He says it in a matter-of-fact way, but if that isn’t fighting talk then I am not quite sure what is. When it comes to brain power and knowledge capability, Ireland is a gold mine. A gold mine people seem, almost willfully, to ignore. Ireland has many great things going for it and an educated population has to be one of the greatest attributes on what would be a very long list. It has well over 800,000 people who have completed third-level education of some kind. (We’ll leave out the half a million that are coming through the system for the while.)


These are figures from the Central Statistics Office. Adding the third-level graduates together we get a figure of 829,201. Now to compare this to UK statistics. Wolfram/Alpha compares the populations thus.


So in the UK, with a population of just over 14 times the size, one would expect a matching proportion (fourteen or so million) of people having completed third-level education. Not so. From a PDF download at the site of the Department of Children, Schools and Families, 30.9 per cent of all adults aged 19-59F/19-64M have a qualification at level 4 or higher. This equates to 9.1 million people. So by taking these government figures we can make a useful comparison.

  • UK: 9.1/60 million = 15% of the population with third-level education
  • Ireland: 829,201/4.3 million = 19.2% of the population with third-level education.

With proportional adjustment, this means that for every 4 Irish persons with a substantial education history there are three UK citizens. Or if Ireland were the same size as the UK there would be 12 million Irish with third-level education to the UK’s 9 million. There is a greater depth of education in the Irish population by a truly enormous 33%. By any standards that is a phenomenal difference that reflects very well on the potential of the Irish population to make great progress in the future.

But still, being the best seems both a daunting idea and a daunting challenge: being the best means being better than all the folks that are coming out of those fine American universities. Being better than the multitudes graduating from technical academies of India and China. In short, being better than everyone else. So, how do we be the best? The answer, I believe, is in our hearts.

In a recent interview for Social Bits, economist David McWilliams summed it up perfectly. The quote comes at 3:20 in this video: “Do what you love, as only doing what you love, you do what you’re good at.” It’s not what others think you should be doing or what you think you ought to be doing. The way to truly excel is to do what you really love to be doing.

It very probably is that simple.