Reappraising the utility of Google Flu Trends.


Estimation of influenza-like illness (ILI) using search trends activity was intended to supplement traditional surveillance systems, and was a motivation behind the development of Google Flu Trends (GFT). However, several studies have previously reported large errors in GFT estimates of ILI in the US. Following recent release of time-stamped surveillance data, which better reflects real-time operational scenarios, we reanalyzed GFT errors. Using three data sources-GFT: an archive of weekly ILI estimates from Google Flu Trends; ILIf: fully-observed ILI rates from ILINet; and, ILIp: ILI rates available in real-time based on partial reporting-five influenza seasons were analyzed and mean square errors (MSE) of GFT and ILIp as estimates of ILIf were computed. To correct GFT errors, a random forest regression model was built with ILI and GFT rates from the previous three weeks as predictors. An overall reduction in error of 44% was observed and the errors of the corrected GFT are lower than those of ILIp. An 80% reduction in error during 2012/13, when GFT had large errors, shows that extreme failures of GFT could have been avoided. Using autoregressive integrated moving average (ARIMA) models, one- to four-week ahead forecasts were generated with two separate data streams: ILIp alone, and with both ILIp and corrected GFT. At all forecast targets and seasons, and for all but two regions, inclusion of GFT lowered MSE. Results from two alternative error measures, mean absolute error and mean absolute proportional error, were largely consistent with results from MSE. Taken together these findings provide an error profile of GFT in the US, establish strong evidence for the adoption of search trends based 'nowcasts' in influenza forecast systems, and encourage reevaluation of the utility of this data source in diverse domains.

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