This should make everyone sad, regardless of political affiliation. Its a study, described in the New York Times, using Google Insights, of the relationship between racism and voting in the 2008 election.
What the researcher did, brilliantly, was to use Google Insights to identify parts of the country with apparently racist use of Google, and then look at how the 2008 vote for Obama compared with what the vote would have been if spread between the 2004 Kerry vote and the 2008 Obama vote had been even across the country. Here are portions of the article.
I performed the somewhat unpleasant task of ranking states and media markets in the United States based on the proportion of their Google searches that included the word “nigger(s).” This word was included in roughly the same number of Google searches as terms like “Lakers,” “Daily Show,” “migraine” and “economist.”
. . .
Consider two media markets, Denver and Wheeling (which is a market evenly split between Ohio and West Virginia). Mr. Kerry received roughly 50 percent of the votes in both markets. Based on the large gains for Democrats in 2008, Mr. Obama should have received about 57 percent of votes in both Denver and Wheeling. Denver and Wheeling, though, exhibit different racial attitudes. Denver had the fourth lowest racially charged search rate in the country. Mr. Obama won 57 percent of the vote there, just as predicted. Wheeling had the seventh highest racially charged search rate in the country. Mr. Obama won less than 48 percent of the Wheeling vote.
Apart from a reminder about the sad reality of ongoing racial prejudice, what’s the relevance of this for access?
Let me suggest that a process of using the Google database to show changes in legal related searches, over the whole Internet, not just our databases, could reveal changes in legal need, and even the distribution of such changes.
I understand that there is no public API for Google Inisghts, but there have been efforts to use Google Suggests to achieve some of the same results. Here and here. Assuming that could be got to work, (and that is a big if) someone could play around with a program that put LawHelp menu categories into the search database.
Or, more ambitiously, maybe the LSC relationship with Google could be expanded into a project in which programmed access into the database would provide ongoing information on legal needs trends — something of huge help to LSC, programs, Congress, ATJ Commissions, and the public.
Otherwise, we should be mining our own huge pools of search data.