Predicting flu outbreaks? Google as epidemiologist

Predict: v. to declare or indicate in advance ; especially : foretell on the basis of observation, experience, or scientific reason

Have you ever found yourself in the middle of the night with mysterious aches and pains? Your doctor is asleep, so you can’t call him till morning, but you want to know what the hell is wrong.  Who ya gonna turn to?

Google Flu Buster!

Google’s philanthropic arm Google.org has just instituted a 21st century way of tracking and perhaps predicting flu outbreaks.  The service will do this by aggregating searches for such terms as “muscle aches”, “fever and chills,” “flu symptoms.” It tracks and charts the ebb and flow of such queries, broken down by regions and states. For now they’re only doing it in the US.

I’m not sure how they know where I live… this is a little scary. How much else do they know about me?

Here’s more info from the NY Times today:

Google Flu Trends (www.google.org/flutrends) is the latest indication that the words typed into search engines like Google can be used to track the collective interests and concerns of millions of people, and even to forecast the future…

Early tests suggest that the service 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. Some public health experts say that 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.

It could also offer a dose of comfort to stricken individuals in knowing that a bug is going around.

Besides tracking infectious diseases, search engines can also predict other things:

Researchers have long said that the data sprinkled throughout the Web amounts to a form of “collective intelligence” that could be used to make predictions. Commercial Web sites mine this information to predict airfares or home prices.

But the data collected by search engines is particularly powerful, because the keywords and phrases that people type into search engines represent their most immediate intentions. People may search for “Kauai hotel” when they are planning a vacation and for “foreclosure” when they get in trouble with their mortgage. Those queries express the world’s collective desires and needs, its wants and likes.

Big Google is watching you…

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