Via Robert A Guth at the Wall Street Journal, I learned yesterday of a great new feature from Google.org, the arm of the search giant dedicated to the use of information and technology for the global good.
Google Flu Trends is a joint effort with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the “prevention” part is always lost in the acronym, CDC). There you can track the number of influenza cases in the US and in your particular state, enter your postal code to find the nearest purveyor of influenza vaccines, and even download weekly raw data on regional flu cases (more detailed description here). The site claims that the combined CDC information and Google search strategies provide flu trend data two weeks faster than most traditional sources. The Google Flu tracker is also a superb informational adjunct to the CDC’s excellent flu information page.
For those of you with the dichotomous penchant for tracking disasters like hurricanes, Google Flu Tracker will be great fun.
But in all seriousness, influenza is a preventable disease that annually causes 200,000 US hospitalizations and kills 36,000 Americans, or 12 times the number of people lost in the 11 September terrorist attacks.
Apologies to our international readers but the data is only available currently for the United States.
Addendum: Miguel Helft at the New York Times has a more detailed article and notes that the methodology behind Google Flu Tracker will be published in an upcoming issue of Nature. The NYT link also has a 5 min audio backstory with Mr Helft.