Google Uses Its Search Powers to Track Swine Flu

May 6, 2009

In November 2008, Google launched a search tool to track influenza. In response to the swine flu outbreak, Google has re-calibrated its tool to more closely track the progress and spread of the swine flu in Mexico and the US.

Back in November 2008, Google launched a search tool to track influenza. In response to the swine flu outbreak, Google has re-calibrated its tool to more closely track the progress and spread of the swine flu in Mexico and the US.

The basic premise is this: Google has set up its systems to keep track for searches related to influenza and flu symptoms. Google says that using its search methodology can detect outbreaks faster than any other method because results are tracked in near real time. Public health officials have tasked Google to alter its search and see if it can better track how Swine Flu is making its way around North America.

Jeremy Ginsberg and Matt Mohebbi, Software Engineers at Google said, "In the United States, we were able to validate our estimates using data from a surveillance system managed by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). We have not verified our data for Mexico in the same manner, but we've seen that Google users in Mexico (and around the world) also search for many flu-related topics when they have flu-like symptoms. Given the tremendous recent attention to swine flu, our model tries to filter out search queries that are more likely associated with topical searches rather than searches by those who may be experiencing symptoms."

Ginsberg and Mohebbi caution that this method is an experiment, but one they believe can deliver results to be relied upon. The data it is providing about swine flu, in particular is more loosely estimated that that of standard influenza. The numbers will be updated every day for different regions as data pours on. They say that the low number of cases in the US is likely to change over the coming days and weeks, depending on how/if the disease spreads.

Also, keep in mind, the data does not point to individual users. Everyone's privacy is maintained.