How Google Confused Basketball Fans With Flu Patients

Big data evangelists love the story of Google Flu Trends. In 2008 the search engine company created a feature that geographically tracks searches for flu-related words over time—presumably words like cough or fever (Google doesn’t release the exact words). The thinking was that people who were developing flu symptoms would turn to Google to self-diagnose, and looking at where people were doing that would create a real-time map of flu epidemics. By contrast, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other public health agencies take up to two weeks to come out with their numbers. It was a perfect example of the way the enormous mass of digital footprints people leave on the Web could be sifted for helpful—in this case potentially life-saving—information. The fact that the dataheads at Google were showing up the eminent epidemiologists at the CDC only added to the story’s allure.

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