Google Flu Trends website shuts down; will send data to Boston Children's, Columbia, CDC

By Jonah Comstock
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flu trendsGoogle Flu Trends, as a website open to the general public, has shut down. The Google Flu Trends team will continue to track flu patterns based on search history, but it will now provide that data directly to public health researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Boston Children’s Hospital, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Influenza Division. Google Dengue Trends is also no longer publishing new data.

"Instead of maintaining our own website going forward, we’re now going to empower institutions who specialize in infectious disease research to use the data to build their own models," the Flu Trends team wrote in a short blog post. "Flu continues to affect millions of people every year, and while it’s still early days for nowcasting and similar tools for understanding the spread of diseases like flu and dengue fever -- we’re excited to see what comes next."

Google confirmed to MobiHealthNews that the change doesn't reflect any lack of confidence in the accuracy of the data, which was challenged in a widely publicized Science Magazine article last March. In fact, Google took action to address those concerns in October, when it added CDC data to flu trends. Nor was the change related to the restructuring of Google under Alphabet. 

John Brownstein, the new CIO of Boston Children's Hospital, said that Boston Children's and their health crowdsourcing tool HealthMap have been working with Google Flu Trends for some time in various capacities.

"We’ve been talking to Google for a long time about ways we can refine methodologies for flu trends and people on our team actually have published papers on the improvement of Google Flu Trends with new types of statistical methodology," he told MobiHealthNews. "The idea here is that they’re going to help provide data to the research community to improve outcomes and and sort of energize the public health community to do this work."

In fact, Boston Children's already has a website that incorporates Google Flu Trends data, called the HealthMap FluCast. It also brings in CDC data, data from athenahealth's EHR, and publicly reported data from Boston Children's FluNearYou site. Columbia has an Infectious Diseases Prediction dashboard where they're experimenting with different data sources to track the spread of disease. These tools will continue to serve as places where the public can see Flu Trends data, and the researchers will have access to better data than they had before, to build better models, Brownstein said.

Archival data from the Google Flu Trends website will still be available online to anyone, and other researchers wanting access to the data -- for noncommercial use -- can fill out a form to request it.