Can Google Trends Help When Launching a Humanitarian Appeal on Ebola?

Different national development and humanitarian coalitions are currently launching appeals to combat Ebola in West Africa. The Disasters Emergency Committee in the UK recently launched their appeal to gather funds, and others like the Netherlands’ Samenwerkende Hulporganisaties (SHO) might launch an appeal soon as well as those in other countries.

As with any appeal, measuring public sentiment and engagement with a topic is important before launching an appeal. This made me wonder, can we use Google trends to analyze public sentiment or interest in the topic of Ebola before an appeal is launched and what can we learn from this information?

What got me thinking about this, is a recent article in the GuardianEbola ‘may have reached turning point’. The article goes on to explain “how the the World Health Organisation confirmed that the number of Ebola cases in Liberia has started to decline, with fewer burials and some empty hospital beds. But the WHO warned against any assumption that the outbreak there was ending.” Source: Guardian.

Has a turning point been reached and what impact with this have on the public sentiment?This made me wonder, is it too late to launch an appeal, is the general public (Google search users) still interested in the topic of Ebola? What information can we get from Google Trends to help make such a decision?

Analyzing the Data

So I went to Google Trends to see how often the term Ebola was searched for in four different countries. I did this to get an idea of how the Netherlands’ interest and engagement of the topic of Ebola rates among neighboring countries. I chose to select the Netherlands, United Kingdom, Germany and Belgium and focus on the Topic of Ebola from July 2014 – October 2014.

Interest Over Time

Looking at the graph, it shows that the Netherlands currently has one of the highest engagement and interest levels in the topic of Ebola compared to its neighboring countries even though, they are all in decline. Interest in the topic was high in the beginning of August in the Netherlands, but it gradually declined until a small spike in October after which interest in all countries again declined under that of the Netherlands.  The United Kingdom, had a very clear spike in interest of the topic between October 5 – 18, while the other countries only had a relatively small spike of interest after which interest again declined in all the countries. Comparing averages over the period between July and October shows that the average interest in the topic Netherlands is close to the interest in the United Kingdom followed by Germany and Belgium of relative web searches.

Note: Numbers represent search interest relative to the highest point on the chart. If at most 10% of searches for the given region and time frame were for “Ebola,” we’d consider this 100. This doesn’t convey absolute search volume.


Measuring Interest

After establishing general interest in the topic on the national level it is now interesting to see which regions, or cities in this case, have the highest relative search queries based on the topic. As can be seen, Amsterdam stands out far above the rest of the other cities listed on the chart. What is particularly interesting to note are the cities that are not listed in this chart, Rotterdam, Den Haag, and Utrecht, respectively the second, third and fourth biggest cities. What conclusion you can draw from this I will leave to you, but it is interesting to note either way. What this information does tell you, however, is the levels of interest and engagement in the topic per city. This information can further help when planning an appeal. 

Related Search Terms

So we have now established the general interest of the topic, where the interest lies, but what are the related terms that people are searching for? This is of course a very interesting question, as if gives an insight in the way people are thinking and what they are thinking. Do people want to know more about Ebola in general, do people want to know about their proximity to Ebola or do they want to know something else on the topic. As can be seen, the overwhelming results are general interest in the topic followed by geographic questions in the Netherlands and Nigeria. Again, the most interesting thing to note is the lack of search terms for Sierra Leone, Liberia or Guinea and instead the focus seems to be on Nigeria which has been Ebola free since October 20 according to WHO. Again, information like this helps to form the message you want to send during an appeal.

Note: Numbers represent search volume relative to the highest point on the map which is always 100. Click on any region/point to see more details on the search volume there.

Can This Information Help?

I guess it depends on how you interpret the information and what other sources of information you have available to you in determining if it is the right time to launch a humanitarian appeal. This information by itself can of course not be the only source of information that should be used, but it is a useful dataset to gauge the level interest and engagement on the national and city level. Is does provide insight in the topics that people are interested in and where the interest of the topic is within the country.

In my opinion this dataset is useful to use when launching an appeal, maybe not necessarily the deciding factor if an appeal should be launched, but it does provide a good baseline to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness and efficiency of an appeal and if it is creating engagement and interest on the national level.

How ever you want to use it, Google Trends is a good resource to use and what is even better, is that they provide all information from their dashboard in a downloadable and open dataset. Download the file Google Trends – Ebola or check out the full dashboard on Google Trends.