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Google Public Health

November 17, 2008

Making the rounds in the popular press and blogs this week is an article from Google on one of their famous other projects, and if you ask me, it’s implications are huge.

Thanks to our relentless googling, Google has accumulated a wealth of data, literally tens of millions of self-reported data points each day. As our friends in biostats know, the more data points one has, the more representative one’s data becomes. With that much data, it possible to find out what a region, state, country or the world are thinking, or at least what they want to know more about. This idea was famously tested in a pr0n court case earlier this year.

So, what would you want to know about if you had access to, essentially, the thoughts of every googler out there? (The location of the rebel star base, maybe?) Alas, Google does no evil, so in concert with their Google.org Predict and Prevent Team, they’ve begun tracking search terms that have to do with the flu using the Google Trends tool they developed to help track the zeitgeist of the web. And they’ve found something pretty cool.

It turns out that people start searching for “flu terms” about the same time they and their family members get sick. The correlation between the two acts was strong enough that they checked with the latest CDC numbers and found that the Google Trends spikes in “flu terms” preceded CDC spikes in reported flu cases — by almost two weeks!

For public health, this is yet another tool in the kit to help with identifing disease outbreaks. For public health preparedness folks looking at panflu issues, this is huge. Consider: a spike in “flu term” searches in the middle of July (in the northern hemisphere) could very well given us a jump on prophylaxing at-risk people before the first wave of a pandemic flu hits, thereby delaying and spreading the epi curve out. Huge, huge, monstrously huge. A two week warning bell could save literally hundreds of thousands of lives.

Reading about this reminded me of something I’ve talked about before here, when I posted on Dr. Larry Brilliant’s talk at the 2006 TED Conference. You can find the video of that talk here (be warned, there are some graphic photos). In his talk, he mentioned a Canadian group, GPHIN, that does something similar. And they’ve got a similar track record. Their group scans government websites looking for information on disease outbreaks and other public health events and reports on these data, describing the situation before the media or even WHO gets a handle on things. According to this article, GPHIN took note of SARS in November of 2002. The medical community in China reported the first cases on November 16, 2002. That’s how powerful this type of software is.

So, when I see a company as respected as Google taking this on, and doing it out in the open, for free, I think that nothing but good can come from it, and offer many, many kudos and thanks.

You can find Google Flu Trends here.

Also, hat tip to Red Cross PDX for posting on this first after Google.

Photo credit: MC Aaron, after he stole it first

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 19, 2009 3:01 pm

    eeeewww!!!

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  1. Swine Flu, Where Art Thou « In Case of Emergency

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