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Google tracks outbreak of virus

Alex Christie

12 November 2008

Google today released information about a new project that could revolutionise the way our health services monitor and survey the outbreak of diseases within a given population.

The Google.org site is specifically designed to track the spread of the infectious disease influenza, (what is more commonly known to you and me as the flu,) and produces its results by tracking the number of Google searches contain flu-related phrases.

The Google Flu Trends site was set up by Google’s Predict and Prevent team who have created the model using billions of search queries dating back to 2003. When comparing the team’s results with the US Centres for Disease Control (CDC) flu results, there were significant similarities between the two sets of data.

What is particularly revolutionary in the eyes of the health services is the sheer speed in which these trends can be seen. The CDC’s current process takes 1-2 weeks to collect and release this kind of information, whereas Google’s results can be counted automatically and trends plotted the same day.

It is hoped that this information could act as an early warning to the CDC and other health agencies who can decrease response times and act upon a flu outbreak as soon as possible. Unfortunately for most, this information is currently only available for 50 of the US States and as the site is very much in its infancy, it is unlikely it will include international trends in the immediate future. In the meantime, I’m afraid the rest of us will have to rely on traditional techniques and keep topping up the vitamin C levels as well as relying on our own immune systems to protect us from any sort of outbreak.

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