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February 4, 2013

The Implications of Google Flu Trends for Public Health

Two articles discussing the pros and cons of Google Flu Trends and CDC in predicting flu severity were recently brought to my attention. One article points to Google Flu Trends as the instant source of data for the community. The other champions the rigorous data gathering of the CDC, which gives the community a more accurate picture of flu data. Although these data sources are very different, I think both can be essential tools for public health.

Experience tells me that the public often fails to look critically at the source of information. Will they differentiate complete, scientifically valid information from other, potentially less reliable sources of information? The answer to this question is probably not. The era of Big Data tells those of us in public health that the nature of our information mission has changed.
 
Applications like Google Flu Trends can and will use data to speak to citizen’s health concerns. In the face of these new information purveyors we must continue to do good science and to translate that science into information for health action. We must recognize that the era of Big Data is a call to action for public health to join forces and work with these new information purveyors to keep the community informed.
 

David A. Ross, ScD

President/CEO of the Task Force for Global Health, former director of PHII