It’s that time of year. Wash your hands. Use that disinfectant wipe on the students’ desks. Stay home if you’re sneezing a bit too much. The flu season is almost upon us, and what better way to feed your fears of the flu than to watch it slowly make its way across the planet? Google Flu Trends is one such site that tracks the flu across the globe, although it does it in an unusual way: it uses data from search queries to track where the flu is most intense.

As Google notes:

“We have found a close relationship between how many people search for flu-related topics and how many people actually have flu symptoms. Of ccourse, not every person who searches for “flu” is actually sick, but a pattern emerges when all the flu-related search queries are added together. We compared our query counts with traditional flu surveillance systems and found that many search queries tend to be popular exactly when flu season is happening. By counting how often we see these search queries, we can estimate how much flu is circulating in different countries and regions around the world.”

The site provides the user with a map, and as you hover over regions of the world, the map tells you of the level of danger related to the flu outbreaks. I was happy to know that my part of the world is on the “low” level of flu threat. Now, anyway. I’ll be back in a month to check it out again.

In the classroom

Along with interest in how sickness spreads on a global scale, this use of data via search queries provides an interesting example of how scientists and mathematicians are really making an impact on how we view and interpret the world around us. It also shows how correlations between disparate sets of information can be useful, if looked at from a different lens. No doubt, Google Flu Trends began because some Google engineer wondered if there was a correlation between people searching about the flu and the outbreak of the flu.

Google Flu Trends

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