Google.org’s flutrend is an attempt to model flu activity across US based on the search terms that Google.com users enter around flu symptoms, treatment etc. The underlying premise is that there is a relationship between how many people search for flu-related topics and how many people have flu symptoms. Think of it as a virtual public health surveillance proxy. If you are not convinced that this is a brilliant idea, take a look at how their analysis relates to CDC reporting.
In case you didn’t know, Google.org is the philanthropic arm of Google, and it was formed with the commitment of 1% of Google.com’s profits to address some of world’s most urgent problems (read the famous 2004 IPO letter by Larry and Sergey where they mention it). The site humbly admits that the Flutrends system is experimental. Nevertheless, it’s impressive that in some instances Flutrends was actually predicting flu before CDC.
Of course, not all people who search for flu have flu necessarily, but the power of this analysis comes from the coverage and promptness, not the granular accuracy. The basic idea of harnessing the collective thought (a.k.a. search needs) of the population to predict/monitor health events is fantastic. And this is just the beginning, IMHO. When a population is connected real-time and discussing what they think/want/need, abstracting that information can yield powerful insights- not just for prediction and monitoring, but for most aspects of healthcare (diagnosis, prognosis, news, followup etc).
The concept is applicable to domains outside of healthcare too. Take twitter for example. Twitter is another platform with mass adoption where people are having real-time conversations about what they are thinking/doing. Just look at what intelligent twitter mashups did for getting real-time snow report of the Feb’09 storm in UK or the Dec’08 Ice Storm in New Hampshire. There are health related examples too- the feb’09 salmonella-in-peanut-butter recall could be tracked promptly on a Twitter feed (btw, this slideshare presentation by PF Anderson at the University of Michigan explains ‘Twitter for Health’ in detail. Thanks to Christine Gorman for the link).