College of Liberal Arts | Spring 2021

What Google can tell us

Online searches concerning flu symptoms doubled over the last two days in Houston, potentially signaling an outbreak in America’s fourth-largest city.

Real-time satellite data from Global Forest Watch shows that protected forestland in Oregon has been cleared overnight. Could it be the result of illegal logging activity?

The Waze app shows traffic backing up miles away from the highway exit on the edge of town, indicating some sort of automotive mishap has occurred.

All of this data is available to view online. Today’s most effective communicators understand how to access that data and utilize it to bring context to their storytelling.

That’s why Sorin Adam Matei – a professor in the Brian Lamb School of Communication and Director of the Purdue Data Storytelling Network – is intrigued by the possibilities that exist within the Google News Lab University Network, a collaboration between the technology giant and more than 200 universities across the globe.

“You have all the data, you’ve found this and that, but now how do people take advantage of this and tell a compelling story to the world about it?” Matei asked. “Now sure, people intuitively know how to do it some, but many of them don’t.

“So can we do a little bit more about it and actually move the conversation a little bit from pure engineering and computer science to the domains that are more appropriate for this, which is communication?”

Matei’s plans for Purdue’s contribution to the network are still in development, but he has two primary goals.

First, he wants to formulate a curriculum teaching data skills – like how to use cloud-based Google Spreadsheets in storytelling – to journalists and those in corporate communications or marketing. In addition, Matei intends to launch a series of seminars with data storytellers offering lectures and workshops.

“I’m thinking very much about the big social media houses – invite some of their researchers and tell us how they mine data, how they get insights and all that,” Matei said. “And not just social media, maybe people who work for the financial sector and engineering.”

Purdue Executive Vice President and Chief Information Officer Gerry McCartney (Ph.D. 1995, Sociology) believes that everyone should be aware of how data analytics impact so many of their daily interactions. Whether it’s a purchase Amazon recommends or a story Facebook funnels into your news feed, none of it appears there at random.

“It’s going on in every facet of human endeavor right now, at least in industrialized countries, so it’s important that our students are exposed to that,” McCartney said.

That is a primary objective of Google’s data storytelling partnership with universities, and it is why Purdue jumped aboard as one of the initial collaborators.

“We’re a quantitative school, so we believe in the value of numbers,” McCartney said. “Anything that we can produce or use to help our students be more successful, to help our faculty be more successful, we’re going to be right up at the front of that, trying to develop those products and tools.

“So this Google tools story is just another facet of that – one centered around news. We’re just endorsing that is all we’re saying. This fits right in with the way we do business.”