Google, the master of all searches, has compiled an algorithm of tracking actual epidemic spreading, through the use of search terms. Epidemic trends, as we like to call this service, makes a map of what people search, disease-related, and when a certain trend is observed, is transformed into a high-scale map and tracked through time.
While the service works constantly for season colds, dengue flu and other… minor diseases, it may prove quite helpful in case of new syndromes and fast spreading new influenza, such as that dreadful swine flu everyone was afraid of a couple of years ago. This might sound bizzare and let’s hope that we will never need such a tool, but it still remains useful.
How Does Google Epidemic Tracking Work?
Picture this: as a citizen of a random country, you are feeling sick and try to find a remedy online – be it pills, natural tactics, drugs, whatever. Google acknowledges your query and if another person near you starts doing the same, it gets curious, and starts analyzing for patterns. When discovering that a certain number of people search for the same thing, Google recognizes the process as a trend and starts a map, for the entire world.
This map, as you may have guessed, estimates how many people are searching for the same sickness, all over the world. Just like in the picture above, the percentage of people searching for flu remedies, symptoms or other related topics is split by the total number of the population and then contoured on the map, using intensive-aware colors (from green, the lowest level, to intense red, the highest).
In theory, we usually search flu-related questions when we are sick, or when someone we know it’s not feeling so well and this is exactly the principle applied here by Google. Although the search-engine giant acknowledges that the actual trend and presented numbers are not accurate, with some people simply searching a new flu virus out of pure curiosity, we cannot say that the principle is not well applied.
As a proof of that fact, Google has a flu activity chart, where the search query data is put face to face against official numbers, released by the official projects based in the United States. The difference, contoured just above, is not that high, and stays pretty much constant when you change the country to other important regions, like Norway or Germany.
Still a long way to go
At the moment, only a small number of countries are included in the project, such as Russia, Romania, Bulgaria, USA, South-Africa, Australia, Germany, France and others, but Google promises to attract all regions inside the project. Also as a downside, there is no granular tracking, just countries in full, which can mean a big disadvantage for someone wishing to see how threatening the flu in Eastern Russia is – a country bigger than Europe itself.
Also, there are reports claiming that Google performs well just in some conventional cases, like the yearly flu. When put against new viruses, like the H1N1 discovered in 2009, the search engine company had a hard time adjusting their algorithms and miserably failed to deliver accurate results. I personally remember several online services providing swine flu maps at that time, with a higher precision than Google.
Like all beginnings, it takes time to adjust and learn – and Google is not short of that.