The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officially declared this year’s flu an epidemic last week, confirming what thousands of miserable patients may have already suspected. It’s not that public health officials are clueless. The problem is that epidemiologists are almost always working off data that is a few weeks old. When a fast-moving flu bug is spreading, often mutating as it goes, cutting that lag time is critical to effectively fight influenza. The flu claims 250,000 to 500,000 lives per year and saps workplace productivity to the tune of $87 billion in the U.S. alone.
Increasingly, health officials are turning to computer coders to chase the flu in real time. Google Flu Trends became a star when it accurately reported the severity of the 2009 flu season nearly two weeks before the CDC. Its method of crunching data on regional flu-related search queries was hailed as a real breakthrough in early detection of contagious diseases.