Google targets swine flu with Australian search data

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Google targets swine flu with Australian search data

Google is monitoring its Australian users' flu-related search queries in an effort to provide daily information on the spread of influenza.

Dubbed Google Flu Trends, the Australian service was launched this week, following its U.S. launch in November 2008.

The service builds on Google's historical search data as well as historical seasonal flu data from the Victorian Infectious Diseases Reference Laboratory (VIRDL).

It provides models at a national and state level for all Australian states besides Tasmania and the Northern Territory, where not enough search data is available.

Google spokesperson Annie Baxter named "headache" and "fever" as examples of flu-related search queries that are included in Google Flu Trends data.

While Google notes that not everyone who searches for information about influenza is sick, its historical data has been found to correlate well with data from VIDRL in Australia and the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the U.S.

"The correlation with our data from 2006-8 was surprisingly good," said Heath Kelly, head of VIDRL's epidemiology Unit.

"It might be that the Google data can disentangle the effect of swine flu, as it appears to have done in the U.S. during May and early June," he told iTnews.

Compared to traditional flu surveillance systems that take one to two weeks to collect and release data, Google Flu Trends reports on influenza activity daily.

The service could enable the early detection of influenza epidemics in areas with a large population of Web search users.

So far, Google has launched Flu Trends in the U.S., Australia and New Zealand. It has yet to release plans for launching the service in other countries.

In the U.S., Google Flu Trends data has been used by public health organisations as a point of comparison with traditional systems.

VIDRL is working on a similar project in Australia, for which it will compare Google's data with two surveillance systems VIDRL currently operates.

"We are putting the information out there and making it publicly available, and it's up to public health organisations to decide how useful it is and how they'd like to use it," Baxter told iTnews.

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