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Using “Big Data” to Optimize Public Health Outreach Answering the Call to Action

Ramone F. Williams, MPhil, MSIV1; Gideon P. Smith, MD, PhD2
[+] Author Affiliations
1Medical student at Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts
2Department of Dermatology, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston
JAMA Dermatol. 2015;151(4):367-368. doi:10.1001/jamadermatol.2014.3176.
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This Viewpoint examines Google Trends data to show how search engine query data can reveal temporal variations in public interest that can be used to optimize public health initiatives in dermatology.

Studies show that more than 90 million Americans use the Internet as a resource for health information, often by entering queries into popular search engines. These queries are logged into mass archives of “big data” that are freely accessible to the public. New studies have shown that big data can be used to track disease incidence and to gauge America’s interest in public health concerns. Dermatology has yet to grasp hold of this wealth of information.

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Seasonal Variations in Public Interest in Melanoma and Tanning

A screenshot from the Google Trends website (www.google.com/trends) displaying the relative frequencies of the search queries “melanoma,” (blue), “tanning” (yellow), and “sunscreen” (red) from January 2004 to December 2013 in the United States. The graph depicts cyclic variations in public interest. The peak interest in melanoma lags behind the peak interest in tanning annually. The x-axis is labeled on the first day of each year. Monthly variations were investigated using the interactive functions available on the Google Trends website. Weekly variations were investigated by downloading a spreadsheet of search volumes recorded in weekly increments. “Note” informs users that in 2011 Google Trends made a modification to their data collection methods. Google and the Google logo are registered trademarks of Google Inc.

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