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Monday 21st May 2018

Google catches flu

17th November 2008

Information about the sorts of keywords people might enter into Google if they are coming down with influenza are being compiled in the United States to give a picture of outbreaks before they are reported through traditional means.


Many people type words like "flu symptoms" or "muscle aches" into Google before even consulting a healthcare professional.

That data can be trapped, aggregated and analysed by Google's technology, although individual searches are untraceable, to protect privacy.

The new web tool is being made available by Google.org, the company's philanthropic arm, and will initially only track keywords being typed in the United States.

The data could be available up to 10 days ahead of that currently compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which has to wait to compile data reported from a wide variety of medical and healthcare sources across the country.

The new tool showed a spike in queries about flu symptoms a full two weeks before a recent report by CDC pinpointing an influenza outbreak in the mid-Atlantic states.

The tool can now be accessed at google.org/flutrends, with graphics and live geographical information tracking queries which fall into a basket of flu-related keywords.

The Google data could help doctors, hospitals and public health officials speed up their response to a nasty flu season, reducing the spread of the disease and saving lives.

Lyn Finelli, lead for surveillance at the influenza division of the CDC, said the earlier the data was available, the better.

Influenza kills around 36,000 Americans annually, affecting 5-20% of the population in any given year.

Eventually, Google is hoping to roll out the same technique to help track influenza and other diseases in other countries, and says that the US project is just the beginning of what might be possible.

The move builds on an earlier study which showed that the data collected by Yahoo, Google’s main rival in internet searching, can also help with early detection of the flu.

Study co-author Philip Polgreen, assistant professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of Iowa, said future developments could mean other disease outbreaks are tracked in the same way.

Some say such data does not necessarily improve on what is available on a daily basis from emergency rooms and other health clinics in communities.

Farzad Mostashari, assistant commissioner of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in New York City, called on Google to provide health officials with details of the system’s workings so that it could be validated scientifically.

Scientists are planning to publish a paper on the methodology of Google Flu Trends in the journal Nature.

Search engine data provides a form of collective intelligence about popular opinions and concerns, and is particularly powerful because of the way in which people use keywords to reflect their immediate concerns.

They are more likely to type in symptoms than the names of diseases when they feel ill, for example.

Increases in searches for certain terms can help forecast what technology products will be hits, according to search engine Yahoo, which already tailors its site features to spikes in keyword searches.

Google Trends is an open-access tool that allows anyone to track the relative popularity of search terms.

Google Flu Trends works by matching keywords and phrases related to the flu, including thermometer, flu symptoms, muscle aches, chest congestion and others, against five years of data on those queries.

It then maps the data onto CDC reports of flu-like illness. Strong correlations have already been seen between the two.

Google also says it believes the tool may help people take precautions if a disease is in their area.


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