Google Updating Flu Tracker To Include CDC Data, New Search Terms

November 4, 2014 in News

On Friday, Google announced that it is updating its Flu Trends tool after receiving criticism for overestimating flu outbreaks in recent years, the New York Times‘ “Bits” reports (Lohr, “Bits,” New York Times, 10/31).


In 2008, Google created Google Flu Trends, which uses search algorithms to track flu activity based on individuals’ searches for flu-related terms. After comparing its data with traditional flu surveillance systems, Google found that it could estimate the spread of the flu by tracking the influx of flu-related search terms.

However, a study in March found that flu tracking data gathered through CDC are far more reliable and accurate than information garnered through Flu Trends, despite the time delay in the federal findings.

The study also found that Flu Trends data in recent years have largely overestimated the number of flu cases when compared with federal data (iHealthBeat, 3/14).

According to Google, the company misreported the flu’s prevalence in the last two years because news reports about the flu caused people to search for information about it. That resulted in the prediction of huge outbreaks, according to Business Insider (Bort, Business Insider, 11/2).

Flu Trends Update

The updated Flu Trends tool will integrate CDC flu data into the service’s tracking model on a continuing basis, the Wall Street Journal‘s “Digits” reports.

While the announcement did not share many details, the terms tracked by Flu Trends also could be modified, according to “Digits.”

Christian Stefansen, technical lead of the project, said the new algorithm will aim to distinguish between individuals who search for information based on curiosity or concern and those who have flu symptoms.

According to Stefansen, Google plans to “publish the details in a technical paper soon,” but it will not include which search terms will be included (Dwoskin, “Digits,” Wall Street Journal, 10/31).

Google will evaluate the tool’s performance in the U.S. to determine whether it can be extended to additional countries (Ribeiro, ComputerWorld, 11/3).

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