Google, in a speedy effort to point their query crystal ball toward swine flu, just launched Google Flu trends for Mexico. The site, just like Flu Trends for the US, looks at aggregate user search queries that might indicate a higher prevalence of flu in a region. Though they don’t publish the specific methods involved, if, say, millions of users in a region started searching for something like “achy muscles and fever” or “I think I’ve got the flu,” the software might notice the trend and note it on the website. Though it’s certainly not perfect, the primary benefit to this approach is that it has the potential to pick up on flu outbreaks a bit quicker than other epidemiological data because it’s real time and avoids the lag of a patient getting to a hospital, then the data getting to an agency like the CDC, etc. Google is calling the site “experimental” for now because they’ve not yet had the chance to validate their models against good clinical data, but decided that they wanted to get it launched as quickly as possible.
Let’s just hope that the swine flu is not transmissible to computers; even my ThinkPad was in a panic today.
From the Official Google Blog:
In response to recent inquiries from public health officials, we’ve been attempting to use Google search activity in Mexico to help track human swine flu levels. Experimental Flu Trends for Mexico is, as you might have guessed, very experimental. But the system has detected increases in flu-related searches in Mexico City (Distrito Federal) and a few other Mexican states in recent days, beginning early in the week of April 19-25.
In the United States, we were able to validate our estimates using data from a surveillance system managed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). We have not verified our data for Mexico in the same manner, but we’ve seen that Google users in Mexico (and around the world) also search for many flu-related topics when they have flu-like symptoms. Given the tremendous recent attention to swine flu, our model tries to filter out search queries that are more likely associated with topical searches rather than searches by those who may be experiencing symptoms.
While we would prefer to validate this data and improve its accuracy, we decided to release an early version today so that it might help public health officials and concerned individuals get an up-to-date picture of the ongoing swine flu outbreak. As with our existing Flu Trends system, estimates are provided across many of Mexico’s states and updated every day. Our current estimates of flu activity in the U.S. are still generally low as would be expected given the relatively low confirmed swine flu case count. However, we’ll be keeping an eye on the data to look for any spike in activity.