COMPUTER SCIENCE PROFESSOR TIM FININ, an expert on deep data-mining of the Web and social networks, blogs at UMBC ebiquity about the swine flu outbreak and how Web searches can predict pandemic patterns ahead of an outbreak:
Google has had a special “flu trends” site up for many months that provides “up-to-date estimates of flu activity in the United States based on aggregated search queries.”
They have found that how many people search for flu-related topics is a leading indicator for reports on how many people actually have flu symptoms. They believe that this metric “may indicate flu activity up to two weeks ahead of traditional flu surveillance systems”….
So, is Google magic? The explanation for why changes in in the level of flu searches precedes changes in the level of flu symptoms is more mundane.
“So why bother with estimates from aggregated search queries? It turns out that traditional flu surveillance systems take 1-2 weeks to collect and release surveillance data, but Google search queries can be automatically counted very quickly. By making our flu estimates available each day, Google Flu Trends may provide an early-warning system for outbreaks of influenza.