NEW YORK (MainStreet) – Is there anything Google can’t do?
Back in 2008 the Web giant launched Google Flu Trends, a novel application of its search engine that aims to track flu outbreaks on global and local levels based on how many people search for terms related to the ailment.
“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,” the company explains on the Google Flu Trends page. “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.”
Now it appears that the science behind the methodology is indeed sound. A study published over the weekend by Johns Hopkins University researchers in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases compares the city-level data gathered by Google with admissions data from Baltimore-area emergency departments. It found a strong correlation between the two, suggesting that looking at Google trends is a good way of finding out whether the flu is sweeping through your area.
The abstract for the study notes that this “validat[es] its use as an ED [emergency department] surveillance tool,” which means that from a research perspective, scientists can use Google for a quick and dirty look at flu epidemic data without needing to gather data from hospitals. And for consumers, it’s a good way of seeing when the flu is at its worst in your area, allowing you to take proper precautions.
Matt Brownell is a staff reporter for MainStreet. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @Brownellorama.