CDC Searches for Outbreaks with Google
The common Flu is both big business and big worry in the US, as companies scramble to make the necessary vaccines in time for the annual flu season and the CDC parses mountains of data to predict what type of flu and when it will strike. The CDC has some of the most reliable methods in the world for tracking this, but they are slow. However, they’ve found a new tool in the fight against the flu: Google.
Months before the recent outbreak of H1N1 influenza (”swine flu”), developers at Google revealed that they had created an ingenious method to predict flu outbreaks by tracking the frequency of search keywords. As it turns out, an increased frequency of searches for a family of words like “flu symptoms” and “runny nose” in a particular region is a reliable indicator that the flu is spreading there. Brilliant.
When this information is graphed by region and compared to data compiled by the CDC, it doesn’t just correlate-it matches almost exactly (see above). The difference is that the method the CDC uses to compile data from clinics and physicians takes much longer. Once people start to feel sick, it takes time to make an appointment to see the doctor, and for a physician to then report that information the CDC. Using search data reveals trends in real time, allowing epidemiologists to identify flu outbreaks two to six weeks faster than by using any other method.