Tech Watch: Google Knows If Your Kids Have The Flu

Google.org takes on the flu, IBM takes on broadband over power lines, and the Department of Justice takes on LG, Sharp, and Chunghwa for price-fixing LCD panels.

Google has refrained from being evil since its inception, but now the search giant appears to be going above and beyond their self-proclaimed mission statement by doing U.S. citizens some good. Its new philanthropic arm, Google.org, announced this week a new tool called Google Flu Trends, which analyzes search data to identify areas of flu outbreak.

Here's how it works: let's say you ask Google “Can I actually die from being this congested? Because I feel like I'm dying.” Google tags the query as flu-related, and mashes it up with the location of your IP address to figure out if other people in your area are also inquiring about cold symptoms. The result is a dynamic map of where the virus may be spreading quickly. According to Google, Flu Trends can almost match the accuracy of the CDC's carefully-researched flu outbreak reports, while generating its reports much faster. Speed is crucial in the event of an outbreak, because it allows community administrators to ramp up vaccination drives and alert residents. So far, flu levels are at low to moderate levels nationwide, though past data suggest the virus will spike in December.

While Google is busy taking on social initiatives, it looks as though the Government is trying its hand at Web 2.0. The Pentagon announced a new social video site this week, about a year after restricting access to YouTube for overseas servicemen. It's called TroopTube, and it allows military folks and their families to upload their own videos with a clean, simple interface. Of course, every video is screened and approved by military censors for sensitive or copyrighted material, but anyone can join; the site's registration process asks for your military branch and requires users solve a Captcha to weed out spammers, but no other military credentials are required.

The private sector is seeing its own resident behemoth try its hand at this whole “Internet” bailiwick as well. IBM is reportedly planning to set up high-speed Internet service for areas that might not have access to phone- or cable-based broadband, and it plans to do so using a technology called BPL — Broadband over Power Lines.

Admittedly, power lines aren't ideal conduits for Internet service; the energy humming along inside a given cable's fellow cables produces substantial interference, and ISPs have, to date, expressed only minimal interest in the technology in light of better substitutes. But IBM is revisiting the BPL idea, which it first broached several years ago, in hopes of servicing a “long tail” of unconnected rural users without the cost of building new transmission lines. IBM won't administer the service to customers directly, but would leave that to local ISPs like IBEC, which will administer the company's first BPL network on the eastern seaboard.

If IBM's plan to identify an untapped market is one of the smartest business tricks in the book, then price-fixing, by contrast, might be one of the dumbest. Apparently no one warned the three giant flat-screen makers that were convicted this week of conspiracy to set price levels: LG Display, Sharp, and Chunghwa Picture Tubes.

The Department of Justice handed the three companies a massive combined fine of $585 million on Wednesday, with South Korean LG bears the brunt of the conviction at almost $400 million in fines. The three companies apparently agreed to sell TFT LCD panels at pre-set prices to OEMs like Dell for its PCs, Motorola for its Razr phones, and Apple for its iPod displays. The DOJ found the three companies had set prices for TFTs at pre-determined levels and exchanged information about price levels and sales to ensure their were keeping consistent with the agreement. Sharp will pay $120 million, and Chunghwa $65 million, though all three judgments are subject to the approval of the U.S. District Court in San Fransisco, where the charges were filed. Perhaps display-makers should consider a “do no evil” clause somewhere in their mission statements — or at least submit any planned chicanery to their lawyers for a second opinion.

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