The Official Google blog recently revealed that it is bringing city level flu estimates to 121 cities in the US, in conjunction with National Influenza Vaccination Week.
Google, being the search gods that they are, found that certain search terms are indicators of flu activity. Using aggregated search data, they have figured out how to estimate current flu activity around the world in near real-time. The flu trends are updated daily and (this from Google themselves): “may provide early detection of flu activity.” That’s a pretty hefty claim, but if anyone is up to the challenge, it’s Google. The team is careful to point out, though, that the city level estimates are experimental, not yet having been validated by official data. They do point out that a similar process was used for their nation level estimates, which were verified.
The Google team understands, of course, that just because a person searches for the term ‘flu’ (or something like that), it does not mean they are sick, but they have observed a pattern that emerges when flu-related search queries are correlated. They found that, not surprisingly, many flu-related search queries tend to be popular during the height of flu season. Indeed, their data has even been published in the journal Nature.
With many fears of a global Swine Flu outbreak of epic proportions now subsided, some may wonder about the timing of this tool’s release. Google software engineer Matt Mohebbi explains, “No one knows exactly what will happen next. However, the CDC is warning that one possibility is a second spike of flu activity, which is what occurred in 1957 when another novel strain of influenza spread in the United States…We’ve been chatting with public health officials about new ways we can help people understand the spread of flu during this unusual time.”
Take a peek at the Flu Trends page. The flash map that shows the flu trends in US cities shows low flu activity in most cities, with the exception of a few, including La Jolla, CA; New Orleans, LA; State College, PA; and New York, NY, all of which the Google flu trends indicate have flu activity at a ‘moderate’ level.
It’s also possible to compare the data to flu search data from past years, all the way back to 2003.
Is it a groundbreaking tool? It could be. Time will tell. Google says that for epidemiologists, the tool is an exciting development, since early detection of a disease can reduce the number of people affected. The up-to-date data available through the tool, explains Google, could enable health officials and professionals to be better prepared and respond more efficiently to seasonal flu outbreaks.
Kaila Krayewski is a freelance journalist with a passion for all things internet. Having worked for nearly two years as the public relations manager for an internation search engine optimization company, and publishing hundreds of articles (how-to, informational, and otherwise) on SEO, she knows a thing or two about the field. Furthermore, having just started up her own website blondetraveler.com, she is doing her best to keep one step ahead of the search engines in order to keep the traffic flowing.
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