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November 11, 2008

Google Predicts the Flu

graph of flu vs. google search trends

There's no end to the cool things waiting to be discovered by analyzing search data. Case in point -- Google can detect when there's a regional outbreak of the flu before the federal government can.

By tracking the rise in users hitting Google with search terms like "flu" and "treating flu" over the past several years, the company demonstrated that the rises and falls in their search stats line up quite accurately with the Centers for Disease Control's statistics for flu cases. But the thing is, Google detects the rise in flu about two weeks before the CDC(*). Spotting a regional flu outbreak earlier can translate into actual lives saved, as health care workers can take extra precautions with at-risk patients.

Google.org, the company's non-profit arm, is making real-time flu search stats available to the public at www.google.org/flutrends . They also have a paper on the subject accepted for publication in Nature. (Here's a PDF manuscript).

Update: Here's a New York Times article on Google Flu Trends.

(*)The lag isn't because of incompetence at the CDC, it's because their flu stats are based on periodic reports from physicians around the country.


Posted by Chris Spurgeon at November 11, 2008 09:47 PM