Posts Tagged ‘flu’

The Search Virus: What Your Online Activity May Say About Your Viral Load

Tuesday, October 26th, 2010

Solve this riddle: Student A sits in Humbio 151: Introduction to Epidemiology (i.e. the study of disease outbreaks), listening to a representative from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) discuss how his organization conducts epidemic surveillance.  Student A’s eyes are drooping slightly due to sleep deprivation, a consequence of her participation in the hallowed “Full Moon on the Quad” celebrations the night before.  Between bleary-eyed blinks, Student A decides to Google “flu shots” and “become effective.”

The question: does this student have the flu?

Okay, let’s be real.  If I didn’t already lose you back at Intro to Epidemiology, you are probably thinking “WTF? That makes no sense” right about now.  You probably think you don’t have enough information to answer that question.  And that’s where Google comes in.

That’s right, it’s the G-word.  The giant Mecca of search engine has the answers again.

Let’s break it down.  Here’s what we sans Google know: Last night at Full Moon, Student A was likely exposed to massive quantities of bacteria, viruses, and a variety of scarring mental images.  Her Google search terms suggest that she only recently received a flu shot (I’ll give you a hint: it was yesterday) and she wants to find out if she is successfully vaccinated yet.  For those of you who might care to know, the flu vaccine takes approximately 2 weeks to kick in (it isn’t lookin’ good for Student A).

But here’s the missing link that the average blog reader doesn’t know but Google does: what is everybody ELSE searching online?

Allow me to introduce you to Google Flu Trends (also known as the hypochondriac’s newest enabler).  The brainchild of Google Insights (which tracks how the volume of specific search terms is distributed geographically, seasonally, etc), Google Flu Trends tracks certain flu-related search terms to estimate when and where flu outbreaks are likely to occur.  So, to solve our riddle, all you need to do is pull up Flu Trends in your browser, zoom in on California, then on San Jose (sorry Palo Alto, you don’t qualify with your puny population) and look at the predicted flu levels based on search terms.

BAM.  The reult?  LOW.  Seeing this, Student A does a victory dance in her chair, much to the displeasure of the CDC representative who is still talking to the class about lime disease outbreaks.

Blissfully ignoring her professor’s warning about applying statistical generalities to the individual, Student A breathes a sigh of relief.  Her poor planning and free-spirited promiscuity are unlikely to result in the flu any time soon (I’m aware all you statistics peeps are groaning in agony as this flawed logic, but roll with me here).

(more…)