Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Search Power

The U.S. Government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continually tracks patterns of infectious diseases, including annual outbreaks of influenza. Data is gathered from a network of doctors, correlated by the CDC, then released weekly via FluView, which details the rates and geographic patterns of illness (scroll to see map at end). It’s a long-established process that tootles along.

Now enter Google -- specifically,, a philanthropic arm created to glean socially important meaning from Internet-search trends. From the blog:

Our team found that certain aggregated search queries tend to be very common during flu season each year. We compared these aggregated queries against data provided by the [CDC], and we found that there's a very close relationship between the frequency of these search queries and the number of people who are experiencing flu-like symptoms each week. As a result, if we tally each day's flu-related search queries, we can estimate how many people have a flu-like illness.

Google data correlates strongly with CDC data, and can be tallied faster and with fewer resources -- automatically, even. For now, it’s fun to compare it against well-known disease patterns and trending processes. But the real excitement is its potential in epidemiology, if disease variations, including pandemics, emerge.

Who'da thunk?

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