Can search query trends provide an accurate, reliable model of real-world phenomena? Some folks at Google have been tracking how often people search for flu-related terms and to what extent it relates to CDC data about how many people see their doctor with flu-like symptoms.

They have put together a compelling visualization along with a great article about the process. Here’s an excerpt:

“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.

“For epidemiologists, this is an exciting development, because early detection of a disease outbreak can reduce the number of people affected. If a new strain of influenza virus emerges under certain conditions, a pandemic could emerge and cause millions of deaths (as happened, for example, in 1918). Our up-to-date influenza estimates may enable public health officials and health professionals to better respond to seasonal epidemics and — though we hope never to find out — pandemics.”

The Google folk, Jeremy Ginsberg, Matthew Mohebbi, Rajan Patel, and Mark Smolinski, and Larry Brilliant have teamed up with Lynnette Brammer from the CDC and have written an article that has been accepted into the scientific journal Nature. Fascinating, yet somehow spooky.

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