Google is putting its massive amount of health and disease data to use

Key Points
  • Google's News Lab works with designers and artists to visualize its search data.
  • The lab unveiled a new tool to help journalists and researchers understand how searches for health information correlate with actual incidences of disease.
Getty Images | Justin Sullivan

Consumers flock to Google to learn about health conditions like cancer, heart disease and diabetes. In recent years, the search engine has been looking for ways to put its growing volume of health data to use.

Google's News Lab, which is designed to help journalists and researchers use Google tools for storytelling and understanding data, introduced a new tool this week specifically focused on health care and disease.

On the website -- Searching for Health -- the lab developed a series of visualizations to show how health-related internet searches map to the actual spread of disease. For example, Google shows that in geographic areas where searches for cancer, heart disease, stroke and depression are high, so are actual occurrences of those diseases.

The data also shows trends over time. Google searches for obesity, for instance, have been steadily on the rise for the past decade.

Whether Google's data can have a positive impact on public health and disease control is an open question. The site, a collaboration between Google, design studio Alberto Cairo and research and design firm Schema Design, doesn't make any claims that it will.

Google searches for obesity over time
Screenshot from Searching for Health

Google is clearly tapping into a topic of widespread interest.

Studies have found that more than 80 percent of internet users have searched for a health-related issue online. To ensure that this information is accurate, Google has an active partnership with Mayo Clinic.

Last year, Google updated its catalog of health symptoms by including more detailed descriptions of specific diseases, as well as treatment options and symptoms that might warrant a doctor's visit.