Home > academic > A Butterfly in Australia Flaps its Wings

A Butterfly in Australia Flaps its Wings

1 April, 2008; 11:28 Leave a comment Go to comments

Some of you might have heard something about this already, but I have to say it’s made big waves in the transport forecasting community today. Google’s Australia office made the announcement of a new service that essentially uses a mix of the advanced statistical tools to forecast the future state of a web page. Put simply, they have tweaked Google Search such that anyone can sit down at a computer and get the kind of information that transport forecasters have been trying to do for decades. Something similar happened a few years ago, when Google Earth came out: suddenly, anyone could sit down at a computer and be a Geographic Information Systems analyst! (click below the image to read more…)

This highlights some interesting, but troubling, things about the state of the research community at public universities today: we are falling behind…way behind the private sector in research. I think what’s happening is that for many years now, private groups like Google and Microsoft Research have been hiring some of the top academics away from universities, and they have been developing proprietary methods that are implemented into those companies’ products, and they don’t get published in scientific papers until much later, due to concerns about corporate secrets. So of course these companies have been doing things the rest of us didn’t know about.

What makes this announcement different is that it is a huge leap forward, and it supersedes so much of what transport research in particular, and forecasters in general, have been trying to do, that entire fields of scientific research may now be in jeopardy. Already today I’ve been hearing rumors of some U.S. government agencies canceling requests-for-proposals for major research grants, thinking that they can save government funds by simply hiring contractors to Google for answers all day long. This could dry up some of the chief funding sources for transport research centers in the U.S. — at least, those that are focused on transport modeling. We’re talking a major contraction of an applied research field, and many of those affected are friends or colleagues.

I, for one, think you’d have to be a fool to believe that a Googled page can ever be a substitute for good public policy. But since when did the U.S. government agree with me on public policy? Fortunately I’m in Sweden, where there’s a bit more skepticism of Google’s new product. What I’m hearing here is that they intend to do some extensive in-house testing of the accuracy of gDay at SIKA (the Swedish Institute for Transport and Communications Analysis) before they start recommending it for policy analysis, and if they do decide to do that, they they will simply cancel their earlier Requests-for-Proposals retroactively using Gmail’s new Custom Time feature. So it might just be a matter of time for us, too. But we’re keeping our fingers crossed…or, as they say here, we’re holding our thumbs!

Categories: academic
  1. kari.
    2 April, 2008; 5:41 at 5:41

    nice! and for about half a second yesterday i fell for that one about how al gore is running for president as an independent… and then i remembered.


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