The Internet’s ability to act as a societal thermometer is evident in the prevalence of Web users’ swine flu-related searches and commentary on Yahoo!, Twitter, and other Web sites and services. The general insight gathered from such sources is that the recent outbreak is a worrying trend that has yet to break into a fully fledged panic. Giving the public an early warning on influenza outbreaks is the purpose of the Google Flu Trends project, which currently indicates that the country’s mood is one of docility because of the relatively few swine flu cases reported so far in the United States. “Right now we are finding out that Google Flu Trends is very specific, but it might not be that sensitive,” says University of Iowa professor Philip Polgreen. Online tools capable of mapping out seasonal influenza outbreaks can save money and lives by enabling authorities to schedule inoculations, boost staff at hospitals, and order delivery of treatments. Flu Trends lead engineer Jeremy Ginsberg co-authored an article in Nature detailing how the project works. Two piles of information–five years of material from the government tracking how frequently patients reported flu-like symptoms and five years of Google search data–were collected and then compared for overlap, and one of the main challenges is filtering out “noise,” or items that have no actual relevance to the trend being studied. University of Iowa professor Alessio Signorini says that social networking sites such as Twitter could be particularly insightful for public health officials, as people are more likely to report feeling sick on Twitter than go see a doctor.
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