Can the Web Help Us Track the Spread of Diseases?

by Joanna Pineda Posted on November 18, 2008

As if it weren’t enough that Google catalogs the Web, tracks traffic to our site, and helps us get from point A to point B, a new service from Google claims to be an early warning system for outbreaks of the flu.

Google flu trends, a service from, the search giant’s philanthropic arm, analyzes search terms that are related to the flu and creates maps of the US that presumably show where there are outbreaks of the flu. So, if I type “flu symptoms” into my browser, Google will take my search terms and my IP address, and interpret that someone in VA has the flu. In typical Google fashion, typing in the words flu symptoms, aches and pains, chest congestion and other terms will register in Google flu trends because the analysis has shown that these search terms tend to go together and they are indeed related to the flu.

Just think about it. How many of us wait a few days before calling our doctor? Instead, how many of us go to Google to try to figure out what is ailing us. If we “google” before calling our doctor, then Google has the leg up. In fact,’s FAQ claims they were one to two weeks ahead of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) last February when the CDC reported a spike in flu cases in the mid-Atlantic states.

Intelligence and analysis through mob behavior? Sounds crazy but consider that Internet search has become an important part of our everyday life. When I do a search, it represents what I seek and need NOW.

Now if only Google could predict when the real estate market and retail sales will rebound. On second thought, I bet there are geniuses at Google already at work on this.

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