Google’s relentless march to world domination has taken another step with the realisation that the Google Trends search may play a powerful role in the prevention of the spread of viruses and infectious disease.
‘Google Flu trends’ uses a selection of search terms to predict how many people in a particular area are searching for relevant information about flu. Not only have they found that there is an incredible correlation between these searches and numbers of actual cases of flu but they can show incidence of flu far faster than the current official channels in the United States.
Google compared its data with that from a surveillance system managed by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Because of the time lag in collating and checking data Google believes it can accurately estimate flu levels one to two weeks faster than published CDC reports. On January 28th 2008 Google flu trends showed a marked increase in ‘flu related searches in the Mid-Atlantic region of the US, the available published CDC data showed no detectable increase for another week.
Google has compared their search data with that of ‘influenza like illnesses’ tracked by the CDC over four years and there is a very close match between the two data sets. The speed at which the Google data is available could prove to be of major importance in the case of a pandemic. It would allow epidemiologists crucial extra time to respond to an outbreak, perhaps saving tens or even hundreds of thousands of lives.
With the sheer volume of searches conducted on Google this real time trend tracking could be used to spot outbreaks of a range of illnesses or identify hot spots for disease giving public health services more time and more information, vital commodities in the battle against ill health.