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Tracking Pandemics on the Web
By
Volume 40, Number 4 - July/August 2016

SIDEBAR: Google Flu Trends

Longtime searchers remember back in 2008 when Google introduced an exciting product. Google Flu Trends promised epidemic prediction based on search queries. In 2009, it published a paper in the journal Nature saying that its analysis of search trends might be able to predict flu outbreaks even faster than the CDC (“Detecting Influenza Epidemics Using Search Engine Query Data,” Jeremy Ginsberg, et al., Nature, Vol. 457, Feb. 19, 2009, pp. 1012–14; nature.com/nature/journal/v457/n7232/full/nature07634.html).

“Ironically, just a few months after announcing Google Flu, the world was hit with the 2009 swine flu pandemic, caused by a novel strain of H1N1 influenza” writes Steven Salzberg in his article, “Why Google Flu Is a Failure” ( Forbes Magazine, March 23, 2014; forbes.com/sites/stevensalzberg/2014/03/23/why-google-flu-is-a-failure). He continues, “Google Flu missed it.” Google Flu Trends went on to mis-predict the flu almost every week that it operated. The biggest problem appears to be that most Google users don’t know what the flu is. People think that they have the flu, but only about 8.8% of them actually do. It turns out that predictions based on ignorant search queries are useless.

Google Flu Trends quietly disappeared. Still, Google Trends (google.com/trends) lives on. It can be searched by keyword (influenza) and narrowed by region or time. And it will accurately report on search queries … but not whether people actually have the flu.

Crowdsourcing, huh? That’s pretty funny.


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Irene E. McDermott is Reference Librarian/Systems Manager at the Crowell Public Library, in the City of San Marino, CA.

 

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