In the Internet age, one of our first reactions to feelings of illness is to self-diagnose on the Web. Google.org, a philanthropic division of the all-seeing, all-knowing search engine company, is collecting our search data and using it to track the emergence and spread of the flu virus on a new site, Flu Trends.
Using data in much the same way Google Trends tracks popular Web queries, Google is compiling a database based on which areas of the United States seeks "flu symptoms" and other information about the virus using its search engine. It then updates an interactive map to show where the flu festers and its severity. Clicking on individual states within the map brings up a graph showing where the flu is now as compared to previous years.
Last year's test of this service proved to be a success. According to reports, Google caught flu outbreaks about two weeks sooner than the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which relies on hospital and state health department data to hunt its culprit. This phenomenon makes sense when you think about how often people choose to skip a visit to the doctor's office and instead nurse themselves back to health.
As with most of Google's endeavors, people are bound to worry about their privacy. Don't. Google takes only aggregated search data with no specific tracking information and posts it as is, so Google Flu Trends won't tell you which counties, day care centers, or people to avoid.
If Google Flu Trends proves successful as a public service, look forward to an expansion beyond the United States and a more diverse selection of tracked diseases in the future.