ScienceBloggers discuss the implications of Google Flu Trends.

On November 19, a paper in Nature unveiled Google’s latest attempt to use internet search-engine data to make valuable predictions—not about webpage rank or consumer preferences, this time, but about the flu.

“For those of you with the dichotomous penchant for tracking disasters like hurricanes, Google Flu Tracker will be great fun,” AbelPharmboy joked when the news broke. Kidding aside, as the flu kills 36,000 and hospitalizes 200,000 Americans every year, Google’s tracker is “a superb informational adjunct to the CDC’s excellent flu information page,” he added.

Google Flu Trends works on the assumption that, by and large, people who search Google for information about the flu actually have flu symptoms. And the assumption holds pretty well: Google found that the number of flu-related search queries correlates highly with flu outbreak data from the CDC. 

A year and a half before Flu-gle, revere pointed readers to a different kind of flu map—using Google Earth. Scientists at the University of Colorado and Ohio State University tracked the evolution of mutations in various strains of the avian influenza virus, plugged the data into Google Earth, and—voilà—created a map of the spread of the bird flu over the past decade. “It isn’t clear at the moment whether this representation will lead to new insights (which hasn’t stopped the authors from claiming it will),” revere wrote.

Terra Sigillata commenter Lisa Neal Gualtieri left us with some food for thought: What if the news of Google Flu Trends causes many more people to search for “flu” who don’t have any symptoms?

Originally published December 16, 2008


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