Thing Project: Google Flu Trends

June 3, 2010

When I was writing my research paper about how the internet has affected the health industry, I originally wanted to briefly write about the cool little Google gadget, Google Flu Trends, but couldn’t find a good way to bring it up. Google Flu Trends was launched sometime in November 2008. It didn’t get a lot of attention, but I found it very interesting when it first came out.

So, what is it? Well, Google already keeps track of what terms people search for the most. That is why, when you start typing into a Google search bar, that a little dropdown appears with suggestions about how to fill the rest. Google Flu Trends specifically keeps track of search terms related to the flu and where those searches are coming from.

From Google Flu Trends’ “How does it work?” page: “We have found a close relationship between how many people search for flu-related topics and how many people actually have flu symptoms. Of course, not every person who searches for “flu” is actually sick, but a pattern emerges when all the flu-related search queries are added together. We compared our query counts with traditional flu surveillance systems and found that many search queries tend to be popular exactly when flu season is happening. By counting how often we see these search queries, we can estimate how much flu is circulating in different countries and regions around the world. Our results have been published in the journal Nature.”’

Google Flu Trends’ FAQ page explains more in detail how the site works. Nature’s article on Google Flu Trends also offers a little more information.

Over the past two years since its launch, Google Flu Trends has received conflicting reports from News blogs that say the site is just as good, not as good, or sometimes-but-not-always as good as the CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) surveillance data:

Scientific American – “Google Flu Trends” Found to Be Nearly on Par with CDC Surveillance Data

(http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=google-flu-trends-on-par-with-cdc-data)

UPI (United Press International) – Google Flu Trends not as accurate as CDC

(http://www.upi.com/Health_News/2010/05/18/Google-Flu-Trends-not-as-accurate-as-CDC/UPI-32921274222186/)

The Wall Street Journal – Google Flu Trends Good At Suggesting, Not Pinpointing, Flu Cases

(http://blogs.wsj.com/health/2010/05/17/google-flu-trends-good-at-suggesting-not-pinpointing-flu-cases/)

EmaxHealth – Google Flu Trends Not Accurate, Still Good Tool

(http://www.emaxhealth.com/1506/google-flu-trends-not-accurate-still-good-public-health-tool.html)

All of these reports were posted May 17, 2010. I am willing to believe they were all reporting on the same study, but the headlines seem to contradict one another.

What seems to be the general consensus is that Google Flu trends isn’t quite as accurate as the CDC, but it is less expensive and easier to get your hands on. If you are just someone who is curious about the chances of your neighbor making you sick the next time you greet them, I recommend checking out this useful site.

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