All the spies in the world failed to predict the recent turmoil in the Middle East. But if more people had been paying more attention to Google Trends , they might have had more of a clue as to what was about to happen.
Wiretaps and secret intercepts, or secret agents like 007, did NOT help Western officials predict the popular uprisings across this volatile area of the world.
Now Gabriel Koehler-Derrick, an instructor at West Point military academy in the US, and Joshua Goldstein, a researcher at Princeton University, believe a partial solution to that gap in knowledge could be the search engine Google Trends: seeing if they can tap into the mood of the country by tracking what its citizens are searching for online.
Marketing firms have been using Google Trends for years, as has the US government. In 2009, during the swine flu epidemic, Google launched Google Flu Trends.
When people started to feel ill, they went to Google to check out their symptoms. It wasn't a perfect indicator- but Google Flu Trends beat government predictions about flu outbreaks by a week or more.
Now the researchers believe political unrest could be forecast in the same way. Koehler-Derrick said in a report on America's National Public Radio, "There are approximately 16 million Internet users in Egypt. The demographic is undoubtedly is biased toward younger people." He and Goldstein searched Google using Arabic and the search term "Tunis," to see how many Egyptians were following the demonstrations in Tunisia. They compared the number of Google searches for "Tunis" with the number of Google searches for pop stars in Egypt. "As in the United States, pop stars trump almost any search you can think of," Koehler-Derrick said. "But the searches for Tunis prior to the demonstrations that kicked off in late January were surprisingly high." That, in hindsight, was a clear pointer to what was about to happen. Lt. Col. Reid Sawyer, head of West Point's Combating Terrorism Centre, stressed the importance of open sources - newspapers, local radio shows and, of course, Facebook and Twitter. He said, "I think that open source provides a critical lens into understanding the world around us in a much more dynamic way than traditional intelligence sources can provide." Sawyer says this kind of information is vital to understanding the mood of a country - and would supplement information gleaned from more traditional intelligence methods. A debate about the Muslim Brotherhood raged in Washington, D.C. as the revolution unfolded in Egypt. There were concerns that the Brotherhood, an Islamic political group, might come to power. Yet few Egyptians seemed interested enough in the Muslim Brotherhood to search for them on Google. "If the decision makers could have understood how little the Muslim Brotherhood was animating the online searches inside Egypt," Sawyer said, "it might have led to different decisions or different discussions, in the halls of Washington."