Using Google to track influenza

This is a guest post by Cliff Mintz, Ph.D. of BioJobBlog.

No matter what you may think of Google, you gotta love the brilliance and innovative moxy of the guys who run that company. In today’s New York Times, there was a story about a new web tool called Google Flu Trends. This tool is being evaluated as a new early warning system for fast-spreading flu outbreaks in the US.

Tests of Google Flu Trends, suggest that it may be able to detect regional outbreaks of the flu a week to 10 days before they are reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It works by tracking and quantifying number of Americans who enter search phrases like flu symptoms into Google and other search engines. By analyzing these searches as they come in, Google Flu Trends creates graphs and maps of the country that show where the flu is spreading.  For example, in early February the CDC reported that the flu cases had recently spiked in the Mid-Atlantic States. But Google says its search data showed a spike in queries about flu symptoms two weeks before the CDC report was released.

According to public health experts The CDC reports are slower because they rely on data collected and compiled from thousands of health care providers, labs and other sources. The Google data could help accelerate the response of doctors, hospitals and public health officials to a nasty flu season, reducing the spread of the disease and, potentially, saving lives. Researchers have long contended that information published on the Web amounts to a form of collective intelligence that can be used to spot trends and make predictions.

Google Flu Trends appears to be the first public project that uses the powerful database of a search engine to track a disease. This could be the beginning of a new trend in epidemiology. Google hopes to publish the results of its study in Nature.

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