Using Search Queries to Understand Health Information Needs in Africa


  • Rediet Abebe Cornell University
  • Shawndra Hill Microsoft Research
  • Jennifer Wortman Vaughan Microsoft Research
  • Peter M. Small Rockefeller Foundation
  • H. Andrew Schwartz Stony Brook University



The lack of comprehensive, high-quality health data in developing nations creates a roadblock for combating the impacts of disease. One key challenge is understanding health information needs of people. Without understanding people’s everyday concerns, health organizations and policymakers are less able to effectively target education and programming efforts. In this paper, we propose a bottom-up approach that uses search data to uncover and gain insight into health information needs of individuals in Africa. We analyze Bing searches related to HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis from all 54 African nations. For each disease, we automatically derive a set of common topics, revealing a widespread interest in various types of information, including disease symptoms, drugs, concerns about breastfeeding, as well as stigma, beliefs in natural cures, and other topics that may be hard to uncover through traditional surveys. We expose the different patterns that emerge in health information needs by demographic groups (age and gender) and country. Using finergrained data, we also uncover discrepancies in the quality of content returned by search engines to users by topic and highlight differences in user behavior and satisfaction. Combined, our results suggest that search data can help illuminate health information needs in Africa and inform discussions on health policy and targeted education efforts both on- and off-line.




How to Cite

Abebe, R., Hill, S., Vaughan, J. W., Small, P. M., & Schwartz, H. A. (2019). Using Search Queries to Understand Health Information Needs in Africa. Proceedings of the International AAAI Conference on Web and Social Media, 13(01), 3-14.