Turns out a lot of ailing Americans enter phrases like “flu symptoms” into Google and other search engines before they call their doctors.
That simple act, multiplied across millions of keyboards in homes around the country, has given rise to a new early warning system for fast-spreading flu outbreaks, called Google Flu Trends.
Tests of the new Web tool from Google.org, the company’s philanthropic unit, suggest that it may be able to detect regional outbreaks of the flu a week to 10 days before they are reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Technically, this is the area of science known as epidemiology, which is the study of, among other things, the outbreak of disease. Blend once had a really good idea for a product in this space, but outbreak tracking and reporting is a fairly saturated market dominated by some really big players.