Google Flu Trends Resorts to Real Data Because it Got it Wrong

By Ashley Feinberg on at

Google Flu Trends was a service launched last year, which tracked users' illness-related search terms, to gauge region's flu prevalence. Apparently, using peoples' neurotic self-diagnoses isn't the most accurate way to track disease. So now, Google has decided to introduce a "new" flu-tracking engine. The new part? Reliable data.

In the old system, if "runny nose" or "sore throat" or "runny nose sore throat am I dying" was searched, flu-prevalence in that region would get one more point in its column. Unfortunately, it turns out we pesky humans have a tendency to exaggerate whatever is (or isn't) ailing us. This was Google Flu Trends' chart last winter:

Google Flu Trends Resorts to Real Data Because It Got It Wrong

Look at all that red—spooky! Except that, unfortunately for Google, there's a significant portion of the population (myself included) that consists of wildly neurotic, perfectly healthy hypochondriacs.

Which isn't to say that Google's tracker was entirely inaccurate! It did at least give some accurate picture of where flu symptoms were more prevalent, helping scientists predict outbreaks earlier than they might otherwise — up to a point. But to fix the gaping whole in Flu Trends' logic, Google will start blending their search-acquired data with the CDC's own, official, old-school variety.

Google has yet to fully disclose exactly how it plans to blend the two, but today's blog post promises a technical paper explaining the details to be released "soon."

The Flu Trend system isn't a available in the UK at this time, but if it does expand to our territory at least it will likely be a better system after getting these beta bugs out of the system. [Google via New York Times]

Image: Shutterstock/pzAxe