Google is using aggregated search data to track 'flu outbreaks – once again illustrating how tracking information that we freely give online can illustrate real life problems and trends.
The rather clever Google Flu Trends page counts a number of terms to quickly give information on 'flu outbreaks in a model that could be rolled out to other infectious diseases.
"Last year, a small team of software engineers began to explore if we could go beyond simple trends and accurately model real-world phenomena using patterns in search queries," says Google's official 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 US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (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. Based on this discovery, we have launched Google Flu Trends, where you can find up-to-date influenza-related activity estimates for each of the 50 states in the U.S."
Of course similar data is collected by the doctors who treat the problems – but Google's data can be collected and processed far quicker – and could on the face of it be used to contain outbreaks or more accurately judge where medicines or vaccinations should be used.