Shuffling through memories of the past twelve months, one is reminded of the heaving, tumultuous and heady days that made up the molding of global and local politics, innovation, and society. Almost every year feels exceptional at its end, and this one is no different. Exceptional for the unexpected uprisings, reassuring surprises, and most of all, the untimely, or perhaps just sobering, deaths.
A remarkable feature of the human brain is that emotion triggers extraordinary powers of memory – emotional events, traumatic or ecstatic, are captured in a different way from ordinary occurrences. I have many such memories this year. I can recall vividly the walls and tables of a classroom at the moment I heard that Tunisia’s Ben Ali stepped down, the living room and footage on Al Jazeera of Mubarak’s fall, the computer screen announcing Bin Laden’s death, and the Twitter feed of my phone as I scrolled through news of Gaddafi’s brutal demise early one morning, all in 140 characters or less. I also recall the unusually grey and rainy Palo Alto morning marking the first day in 57 years of a world without Steve Jobs, just a few days after the passing of Wangari Maathai. I see clearly the words of Christopher Hitchen’s last column staring back at me, in stark and final relief.
There are of course many other memories, moments captured with friends and family, as well as moments alone, preserved not as events in their entirety, but as a series of snapshots. At the end of every year, as now, there is more time to sit and shuffle through them. It feels like an exceptional year, and the past ten have felt like an exceptional decade.
The pace of progress, innovation, and change makes each decade, and increasingly, each year, feel remarkably different from the previous. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, we experienced tremendous economic growth worldwide, a sharp break from the previous several decades. By the mid-2000s, nearly every single country in the world experienced positive economic growth. The number of new infections of HIV is falling by the year, and deaths due to HIV peaked in sub-Saharan Africa and worldwide in 2004/5. Around the same time, Google went public, and together with Facebook, is now a household name in the global village. Mobile phone use has increased exponentially worldwide. In 2000, there were 12 mobile phone users for every 100 people. Today, there are around 69 mobile phone subscribers for every 100 individuals around the globe.
Change, therefore, is brazenly constant. Anyone who suggests otherwise is either deluding themselves or not paying attention. This is as true in Africa as in the rest of the world, although many both in and outside of the continent have been slow to recognize that the former has not, in fact, been standing in place while the latter dashes on.
The churning and surging marketplace for ideas is open. The stepping-stones placed by yesterday’s innovators serve as a launching pads for vaulting into the next year and decade. Even in the destruction strewn by mad and ordinary men lie the pieces that will build society anew. One can pick them up, or stargaze at glittering towers and soaring skylines far from home.
Entering the new year, we are without many of those who began 2011 with us just one year ago. The most memorable deaths on the news circuit were violent, painful, or both, untimely or just-in-time. The world is short a few tyrants, but short a good many great and beautiful minds too. Their exit is a reminder of the inexorable march forward that spares no one. There is no standing still, but there are choices, and our own expectations.
Accessing people’s thoughts and interests from Asia to Africa is just a click away
It used to be that education primarily took place in a classroom. These days, the chalk and blackboard are fading away and steadily being replaced, or at least complemented, by new technology. Even in some of the world’s hardest-to-reach places, cell towers and solar-charging stations are re-inventing the learning and communication experience. Alongside the traditional classroom teacher are laptops and cell phones, paving the way toward a whole new way of seeing the world.
A world of data is at your fingertips, quite literally. The advent of personal computers and increasing interest in making information open and accessible to all means that we now have the ability to answer many questions faster and more accurately than we ever thought possible. Information on everything from economic growth to weather patterns to flu outbreaks is just a Google search away. Data and data sources are not without their flaws, but we can often see broad patterns much more clearly across and within countries than we once could. The question is, how can we take advantage of new and ever increasing sources of information? Perhaps one of the most novel uses of data pieces together the wisdom of the crowd. In particular, Internet search terms are an amazing guide to all sorts of phenomena we care about, including public opinion on politics and policies, investment interests, and even trends in infectious disease.
What kind of information are people searching for? What are the questions to which they seek answers? One can of course look at broad trends in search engine search terms across countries, something similar to looking at words and topics that are “trending” on Twitter, but one can also look for more specific information. How many people in the U.S., Europe, or Asia look for information about Rwanda, for example? What kind of information do they look for? Google Insights for Search can help answer these kinds of questions, and reveal interests from potential investors, tourists, and others that can be useful to the local business community, government, civil society, and individuals.
If you look at the most frequent search terms related to “Rwanda” used by those living in the United States, France, or even China, you’ll find that most are related to the genocide or the movie, Hotel Rwanda. Within the U.S., searches for “Rwanda genocide” spike every April and May, although the spikes are becoming smaller over time. This is some indication that while the world still heavily associates Rwanda with genocide, this association is becoming weaker with time. Searches for “Rwanda safari” or “Rwanda gorillas” increased greatly in 2005 and 2007 respectively, and most of these searches came from individuals living in the United States or the UK.
Meanwhile, searches about Rwanda in the East African region show a very different pattern. The top three search terms about Rwanda from those living in Uganda and Kenya are all related to jobs, and primarily come from three cities, Kampala, Nairobi, and Mombasa. Meanwhile, searches from within Rwanda about Uganda focused on news outlets, such as the Daily Monitor, New Vision, and “news Uganda” more generally. The most common searches in Rwanda about Kenya include Kenya Airways, the Daily Nation, and Kenyan universities.
Understanding search trends can be useful for businesses and entrepreneurs, but they are also a cheap and easy way to do public opinion polling. In the U.S., search trends of the past couple of months have tended to mirror official polling trends for presidential candidates in the Republican party, for example. If you look over time, you can see the rollercoaster levels of support for candidates such as Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich. In the U.S., regular and nationally representative polls are conducted throughout the campaign period, but the more informal “search” polling can be very informative as well, and far less expensive.
One challenge for using this type of data in countries like Rwanda and Uganda is that relatively few people are online, although the number of internet users is growing by the day. In Rwanda, approximately 13 percent of people accessed the Internet in 2010, up from 7.7 percent in 2009, according to the International Telecommunication Union. More and more people are using their mobile phones, rather than computers, to access the Internet, which makes it easier to get online. Although there may not be enough people using Google to get a good measure of public opinion in Rwanda, this will very likely be possible in the not-too-distant future.
Already, one can observe trends in public interest in politicians among those living in capital cities. Searches for “Besigye”, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s archrival, spiked within Kampala in November 2005, a few months prior to the heated 2006 presidential election, and spiked again to a lesser degree in February 2011, during the most recent election. It appears there was much more interest in Kizza Besigye leading up to the 2006 election (even with considerably fewer people online) than during the time leading up to the most recent elections, a trend which was reflected in Besigye’s support on election day as well. Online searches for Besigye spiked again in April, during the Walk-to-Work protests, but unfortunately for the repeat presidential candidate, by then the election had already passed. Despite the limited connectivity of the population living in Uganda, general election trends were evident in people’s online behavior.
Finally, search terms can be useful for tracking trends in infectious disease. When people fall sick, they often turn to the Internet for information about their symptoms or illness. Tracking search terms can thus identify and follow outbreaks of particular types of illnesses. Google Flu, for example, uses data on search terms to estimate trends in the spread of the flu virus. Again, their data is best for countries in which the majority of the population has access to the Internet, but as Internet connectivity increases in countries like Rwanda and Uganda, crowd-sourced data on infectious disease may help health officials identify and address outbreaks.
The wisdom of the crowd has for long eluded policymakers, investors, and even public health experts because it is costly to collect information from a large number of people, and people often have incentives to misrepresent their interests and beliefs. Using search trends, however, as one measure of people’s interests, opinions, and concerns, is one way to crowd-source information gathering in a relatively inexpensive and expedient manner.