Monday, November 16, 2009

Googling the flu

How can you track the progress of the flu season? If you want rigorous results, you can ask the CDC or its analog where you live for the results of their thorough surveys of public health data. Since that takes a while to compile and cross-check, the definitive answers are weeks out of date. If you're in a hurry, just track how many people are googling for "flu" and similar targets.

The nice folks at Google found that with a little tuning and tweaking, this approach gives results that match the official results remarkably closely. It's not just a neat hack, though it definitely is that. The CDC has taken it seriously enough to collaborate with the Google team on an article published in Nature.

Google is careful to point out that they are using anonymized data aggregated over millions of searches, more than enough for the "I'm Spartacus" effect to come into play. Individual results would be of little help anyway. Just because I google "flu" doesn't mean I'm ill. I might just be doing a little research for my blog.

Looks like Australia is having a fairly flu-free spring so far.

[Google Flu Trends and Google Dengue Trends are no longer active projects, but historical data is still available --D.H. Dec 2015]

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