New Model Uses Internet Search Data To Forecast Flu Outbreaks

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Researchers have developed a new statistical model that uses Google search data and weather forecasting techniques to predict influenza outbreaks, according to a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the Los Angeles Times' "Science Now" reports.

About the Model

Jeffrey Shaman of Columbia University and Alicia Karspeck of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., developed the model using data from Google Flu Trends, a project that tracks searches for flu-related topics and links them to the searcher's geographic location.

For their study, the researchers focused on data from 2003 to 2008 in New York City.

Like meteorological models, the researchers' flu model continuously updated itself with the latest information from Google Flu trends. The researchers also used data from several locations in New York City to estimate the margin of error of their predictions, in the same way that weather forecasters predict a certain percentage chance of rain.

Using the model, the researchers found that they could forecast the height of flu season using data from seven weeks before the peak occurred.

Potential Benefits of Flu Forecasting

Shaman and Karspeck said they believe the ability to predict flu outbreaks will improve as more researchers develop their own models that can be combined in the same way that weather predictions combine data from numerous meteorological models (Bardin, "Science Now," Los Angeles Times, 11/26).

According to Shaman, flu forecasts eventually could run alongside local television weather reports.

The researchers predicted that providing a certain level of confidence in flu forecasts could prompt people to take precautions and be more aware of how they feel. In addition, flu forecasts could help health officials plan stocks of vaccines and antivirals and decide whether to close schools because of an outbreak.

Shaman noted that he eventually would like to test the model in other U.S. regions because "[t]here is no guarantee that just because the method works in New York it will work in Miami" (Paddock, Medical News Today, 11/27).

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