Sebastian Pokutta's Blog

Mathematics and related topics

Predicting the outbreak of the swine flu using google?

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A wired article from the 4/29/09 titled ‘Google Could Have Caught Swine Flu Early‘ suggests that google’s search data could have been used as an early warning system in order to detect flu activity. Although a good idea the problem so far seems to be that it is not clear which combinations or search patterns to monitor:

But the Google Flu Trends team, which aggregates and analyzes search queries to estimate how many people are sick, wasn’t watching Mexican flu data until after the outbreak had already begun. That highlights the problem with tech-heavy disease-detection systems: Often, we don’t know what internet data to look at until after a problem starts.

The early signals of disease are hidden in plain sight, and it takes humans recognizing that something is happening before the computers can be asked to find it. And even if Flu Trends had picked up a noticeable bump in flu searches in Mexico early, a lot of additional analysis would have been required to understand the potential severity of the pandemic.

While showing that a lot of data can contain a lot of information, at the same time it unfortunately also highlights the problem that more data is not necessarily more information if you do not know what to look for. Anyways, enjoy the article!

Update (05/04/2009): There is also a nice visualization on ushahidi available that crowd-sources cases and highlights their locations.

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Written by Sebastian

May 3, 2009 at 12:46 am

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