An infectious use of data

Today I felt less than perfect- my diagnosis being either a lingering hangover (annoyingly from minimal drink) or the early warning signs of some virus/cold/you-name-it making its first moves on my immune system. So what did I do? I googled my symptons.

Apparently, using Google as a tool of early medical diagnosis- that to “see the doctor or not?” question lingering in your mind; is not unusual. Far from it, it seems- as back in November 2008, Google.org (the company’s philanthropic side) launched Google Flu Trends with a mission to track the outbreak of infectious diseases. The interesting thing about this is that this process relies on the very close relationship between the frequency of these search queries and the number of people who are experiencing flu-like symptoms each week. As such, the volume of people using Google to search for ‘flu’ is ultimately suggestive of the number of people affected by the virus. Google therefore has the predictive capabilities to provide an early-warning system for infectious outbreaks, apparently at least, which is all very clever as data can be drawn from Google at a much faster pace than traditional influenza surveillance systems. Moreover, with a huge amount of data, Google is able to observe patterns across large areas and populations; and make this information publicly accessible and easy to understand.

For example, for today the global threat from flu is largely minimal as demonstrated clearly on the google map-

Google flu trends map- green signifying areas at minimal risk to flu, yellow representing a low risk.

However, a potential flaw I can see from this flu-watch program is the discrepancy between thinking you have flu and actually having it. In other words- hyperchondriacs, and also the annoying ability of the internet to make you fear for the worse (e.g. symptons=brain clot), when all you have is a cold. A further consideration is also the fear-factor, as supplied with the news that a flu attack is imminent via Google, it is highly probable that people will search online for just that ‘flu’.. and so the cycle begins. As a result, while I applaud Google’s charitable efforts to increase public awareness of the potential risk of flu, in my view any risk has to be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism.

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