Hidden Data: Google Predicts Flu Epidemics

November
11
2008

I was talking the other day about how much I love when hidden data (or metadata) exposes itself in unexpected ways, like in a trenchcoat at a stop light (just kidding!). The last post was about Flickr using the geotagged information in its photos to map regions. This time we turn our attention to the mighty Google, who released Flu Trends earlier today. The idea is that particular search terms, when plotted geographically, reveal the beginning of a flu outbreak sooner than traditional systems (Google says up to two weeks faster).

Google Flu Trends vs. CDC

Google Flu Trends vs. CDC

As you can see from the graph above, Google is doing pretty well compared to the Centre for Disease Control’s data for the same period. Given that this analysis essentially comes for free, I’d say it’s probably a whole lot cheaper than having the CDC calculate their predictions. Anyone know what that cost?

Flu Trends is part of Google.org’s Predict and Prevent initiative, which looks to “…use information and technology to empower communities to predict and prevent emerging threats before they become local, regional, or global crises.”

Predict and Prevent on YouTube

They’re exploring many different ways to use our digital world to help make the invisible visible, an approach I can whole heartedly get behind. There’s an amazing wealth of data hidden in our daily interactions with the company, from flu tracking to pop culture zeitgeist. Think about what happens if Android takes off and they gain access to real-time mobile data!


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