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

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Remember how excited everyone was about Google Flu Trends last year when it confirmed all of our deepest and darkest fears that we were doomed to a winter of misery? 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.

The old Flu Trends system worked by tracking certain flu-related search queries. So if you say search, say, "runny nose" or "sore throat" or "runny nose sore throat am I dying," flu-prevalence in your area would get one more point in its column. Unfortunately, it turns out we have tendency to exaggerate whatever is (or isn't) ailing us. This was Google Flu Trends' chart this past winter:


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—to a degree. 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." [Google via New York Times]

Image: Shutterstock/pzAxe