10 Ways We're Using Data to Fight Disease

Tracking the Spread of Flu
A woman gets a flu shot at a pharmacy. The website FluNearYou.org allows Americans to post flu symptoms and scientists use the info to track flu trends. Terry Vine/Getty Images

Despite the push every year to encourage people to get vaccinated for the flu, this highly contagious respiratory illness still manages to strike millions of people in the U.S. every year and kill thousands of those who do get ill [source: CDC].

A person with influenza can infect others one day before symptoms are present, and up to seven days after she gets sick, so knowing where and when the flu is hitting its peak around a country is really valuable [source: CDC].

The website FluNearYou.org allows Americans to post symptoms they are having in weekly health reports. Thousands of individuals submit their reports to the website, and scientists map the crowdsourced data to find which symptoms are present and in which locations across the country.

Data science, however, is not always perfect. Google delved into the world of flu predictions with their Google Flu Trends (GFT). Based on people's searches of symptoms, they claimed they could gather enough data to provide accurate estimates of flu prevalence up to two weeks earlier than the CDC [source: Lazer]. Unfortunately, GFT failed to predict a large flu peak in 2013 (its algorithm included too many seasonal search terms unrelated to flu). While GFT failed, the concept of crowdsourcing data to make predictions about disease is one that often works quite well.