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The biggest data bang for the buck

Speed read
  • Internet searches can provide precise emergency management tools
  • Post-Sandy Hook shooting queries mined by IUPUI researchers
  • Partisan sites found to dominate information stream

From ordering delivery food, to learning about puzzling medical symptoms, most people turn to a ubiquitous tool: The internet web search. 

Web searches are a treasure trove of data for researchers, uncovering trends about how people think, act, and behave.

This has far-ranging consequences for public officials in particular. What if policymakers could successfully tap into this rich vein of information to better equip communities with accurate and unbiased information after public emergencies like earthquakes, hurricanes, or mass shootings?<strong>Birds of a feather. </strong> Researcher analysis of Yahoo! search queries for December 2012 show trends in website visits per advocacy view. Courtesy Nir Menachemi, et al.

This is the question researchers Nir Menachemi, Saurabh Rahurkar, and Mandar Rahurkar sought to explore. In a first-of-its-kind study published in JMIR Public Health and Surveillance, the scientists analyzed over 5.6 million firearm-related search queries on Yahoo’s search engine in the 14-day periods before and after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on December 14, 2012.

“We use web searches for everything, from finding out where the nearest pizza store is to what is happening in our community, state, or country,” says Saurabh Rahurkar. “The need for relevant and up-to-date information is particularly important in times of crisis.”

Menachemi's team tracked firearm and law-related keywords against a control search. They found that firearm-related searches more than doubled immediately after the Sandy Hook shooting in comparison to the control search. Gun type and ammunition searches each had a 2-fold to 3-fold increase following the shooting.

The researchers also analyzed the uniform resource locators (URLs) that users clicked on, but categorizing the domains was one difficulty the scholars encountered. Since most webpages exist in multiple forms due to issues like redirects, creating website categories to track was one challenge that was ultimately solved in a semi old-fashioned way.

“We addressed this problem by visiting several thousands of domains individually to figure out exactly what content was hosted on these pages,” says Menachemi. “In some instances, these pages were now dead, in which case we then used the Internet Archive to look up the archived versions of the pages from the relevant time period.”

The scholars used Yahoo’s grid computing resources to sift the data, and will turn to Indiana University’s high-performance computing resources like Karst or Big Red II to analyze larger data sets.

<strong>Let me search that for you. </strong> Websites visited following firearm-related and bicycle-related search queries, by top-level domain. Courtesy Nir Menachemi, et al.

One key finding for policymakers is that users were more likely to click on commercial or advocacy-related websites instead of governmental or non-commercial sources of information. This could be due to a variety of factors, including poor website design, jargon-filled language, poor search engine optimization, or a lack of up-to-date information. 

“Our work suggests that people in general do tend to avoid government websites to seek information, and that they tend to prefer information from advocacy sources — presumably those that align with their own preferences,” says Menachemi. “A takeaway from that is that in this context, information searching tends to remain constrained to an existing world view.”

While search engines can be used to look for mundane items, they can also be a critical source of information for policymakers in the aftermath of deadly incidents. 

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