health research using Google – maybe not what you think when you hear that

This is really interesting.  In a letter to Nature a few days ago, (paywall – natch) six researchers (one from the CDC, and five from Google, including one named “Brilliant” – awesome) reported on their work using five years of query data to track the presence of flu-like symptoms within the population –

By processing hundreds of billions of individual searches from 5 years of Google web search logs, our system generates more comprehensive models for use in influenza surveillance, with regional and state-level estimates of ILI activity in the United States. Widespread global usage of online search engines may eventually enable models to be developed in international settings.

Information seeking behavior within a population as a way to figure out what’s going on in the population – I don’t know why I enjoy that concept so much, but I do.

Here’s where I saw this story on the Mystery Rays from Outer Space blog (by a MSU virologist) – linked from the ResearchBlogging twitter feed.

Here’s more about the “Google Flu Trends” tool including more about how it works, and a place to download the raw data for yourself.

And here’s the graph from the letter that sure makes it look like this works -

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