November 11, 2008

The Google flu search story is pretty interesting

Google reports that it is tracking flu outbreaks via search. Actually, that’s a misnomer. Google is not tracking articles written about flu; HealthMap et al. do that. Rather, this Google project is tracking search queries about flu-related subjects. They have graphs suggesting a strong correlation between flu-related searches and actual cases of flu, notwithstanding that many searches on “flu” would be for, say “flu shot.” The key point is that Google tracks where searches come from, and hence detects which geographical areas are suffering flu outbreaks. And it does this 1-2 weeks faster than the alternative method, which is physicians reporting to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).*

*Which makes perfect sense when you think about how long it takes to actually get a doctor’s appointment — or, all kidding aside, even how long it takes to decide it’s necessary to go to the doctor.

Google, quite credibly, claims that these results are based on aggregated data rather than personally identifiable information. Even so, it heralds a day in which Google observes which groups of users — geographically organized or otherwise — care particularly about certain subjects, and tailors news, ads, or search results accordingly — if that day isn’t already here.


2 Responses to “The Google flu search story is pretty interesting”

  1. Daniel Tunkelang on November 11th, 2008 10:48 pm

    Indeed, I think this is a positive development, as I blogged at

    But it is incumbent on Google to build trust by being transparent about how they manage personally identifiable information. Applications like these, for all the good they contribute will understandably raise concerns because they remind users of the potential for abuse. I do expect we will see renewed pressure on search engines, whether through the law or the media, to limit the data they collect.

  2. Bob Carpenter on November 20th, 2008 6:59 pm

    Epidemiologists are using real-time chief complaint data from emergency room visits. And bio-sensors for air and water quality. They’re not all waiting for physicians to report to the CDC.

    And as someone else brought up on another blog, the search-log approach is easily game-able by hackers.

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