Google Shutters Flu Trends Site, But Will Continue To Offer Data Access To Researchers


Google announces that it will shut down its Google Flu Trends platform, effective immediately. The company made the announcement on Thursday, reporting that the project was a helpful platform to research new techniques in what it calls “nowcasting,” applying real-time data analytics of its search data to measure global trends. Since its 2008 launch, Google has forecasted both influenza and dengue fever on a global scale using algorithms that detect spikes in keyword searches correlated with flu symptoms. Those spikes were then geo-located and plotted on a map, presenting a real-time glimpse into the spread of flu as the flu season unfolded.

At launch, Google hoped that the platform would be able to match the accuracy of the CDC’s reporting on flu prevalence, with the added benefit of offering the data in real time. Currently, the CDC’s models rely on diagnosis information submitted by providers and hospitals, and as a result, the resulting surveillance reports are not real-time. In the years since its launch, Google has benchmarked its forecasting success by comparing its flu estimates with the CDC’s. The platform generated a flood of publicity in 2009, just a year after its launch, when it forecasted the H1N1 Swine Flu outbreak a full two weeks before the CDC was able to confirm the outbreak. However, in the following years, researchers noticed that Google’s platform seemed to consistently overestimate flu prevalence, and in 2014 the data scientists behind the project announced that Flu Trends would be redesigned to improve accuracy.

The changes, which were implemented near the end of the 2014/2015 flu season, incorporated more data sources into the analytics engine, including the CDC’s own flu data. Now, less than a year later and just prior to the 2015/2016 flu season, Google’s changes will be taken offline and the general public will not get to see whether the update ultimately improved the overall accuracy of the project.

While Flu Trends will be taken offline, access to the data is still being granted to public health researchers that have come to depend on it as a source of data for their own projects. Google’s Flu Trends is used as a data source for Health Map, a collaboration between Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School that tracks disease outbreaks across the globe. Health Map gained recognition in the early days of the Ebola crisis when its algorithms detected the outbreak weeks prior to the World Health Organization. Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, and even the CDC’s influenza tracking team also rely on Google’s Flu Trend data and will continue to have unfettered access. For the general public, historical flu data from the 2008 – 2014 seasons will remain available.

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