Google Flu Trends predictions not reliable: researchers

Predicting flu outbreaks is best left to the experts, say Harvard researchers. Predicting flu outbreaks is best left to the experts, say Harvard researchers.
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Predicting flu outbreaks is best left to the experts, say Harvard researchers.

Predicting flu outbreaks is best left to the experts, say Harvard researchers.

Google has failed in its attempts to formulate algorithms which accurately predict the prevalence of flu, according to Harvard researchers who accused the search engine giant of technology “hubris”.

When Google announced the Flu Trends application to track flu outbreaks in real-time, right down to the street level of those suffering from it, the company promised a new era in health, where new technology would more efficiently and quickly disperse the information required to allow doctors and pharmacies to prepare for an outbreak in advance.

Google failed, according to Professor David Lazer and his team at Harvard Kennedy School in the US, who said Flu Trends, which uses search queries to compile its results, tends to overestimate the occurrence of flu when compared with data produced by decades-old organisations that manually collect influenza reports from labs.

The researchers said Google Flu Trends reported too many cases for 100 out of 108 weeks of each flu season between August 2011 and September 2013. It overestimated the prevalence of flu by more than 50 per cent.

The researchers said it was hard to predict outbreaks based on search results because people searching might not actually have the flu or might have self-diagnosed incorrectly.

“The most common explanation for [the] error is a media-stoked panic last flu season,” the researchers wrote in the report.

Google Flu Trends will never match the accuracy of established surveillance networks, according to Ian Barr, deputy director at the Melbourne-based WHO Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza.

“It’s fine for use as a general guide, for the high season, low season, when the season starts,” Barr said. ‘‘But if you’re expecting to pick up very specific, recent trends, such as the slight increases in cases we’re seeing here in Australia over the summer season, then you’re expecting a lot.’’

Initially Google Flu Trends omitted peculiar search terms, which contributed to the application completely missing the nonseasonal H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic in 2009, which spread when the application was still a few months old. Google rejigged the algorithms soon after but it wasn’t enough to escape the ongoing ire of established researchers, who still hold up lab surveillance as the gold standard.

“Even three-week old [lab surveillance] data does a better job of predicting current flu prevalence than Google Flu Trends,” they wrote.

The criticism of Google’s app is unfair because all data collection systems are imperfect, according to Craig Dalton, co-ordinator of the Newcastle-based program FluTracking, which detects flu epidemics by surveying more than 10,000 national respondents every week.

He said results can be skewed by people being told to get tested, such as the 2009 pandemic, and also having the same number of flu cases but the varying strains of flu having different levels of impact.

Google invited Dalton to visit the company’s New York offices in 2010 to consult on the flu trends project, and he said the results have improved since the algorithms were rewritten.

The art to predicting the spread of the flu, or any other trend, is to integrate all the different sets of data and analyse massive amounts of unstructured data, a technique referred to as ‘big data’.

“I think some people take joy in attacking Google Flu Trends,” Dalton said.

“From a holistic perspective researchers should take joy and interest when there’s a significant departure from the norm. They shouldn’t say ‘this is an error’, they should ask ‘why did it depart?’”

“Many studies coming out and attacking Google Flu Trends I think are flawed themselves. It has an incredibly important place in the whole suite of data trends that support flu monitoring.”

Indeed, the Harvard researchers argued that there needs to be more collaboration, and that Google would have benefited from incorporating lab surveillance data, as well as sharing the formulas and search terms that power its top-secret algorithms.

“Instead of focusing on a ‘big data revolution’, perhaps it is time we were focused on an ‘all data revolution’, where we recognise that the critical change in the world has been innovative analytics, using data from all traditional and new sources, and providing a deeper, clearer understanding of our world,” they said.

A Google  Australia spokesman said the algorithm was contantly under review.

“We review the Flu Trends model each year to determine how we can improve. We welcome feedback on how we can refine Flu Trends to help estimate flu levels and complement existing surveillance systems.”

In October 2013 Google admitted that its application overestimated influenza-like illnesses, because increased media coverage prompted earlier that year prompted the highest every number of searches on the subject. Google subsequently changed its algorithm, which will be in place for the upcoming American flu season.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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Melbourne Rebels have a month to turn season around: Scott Higginbotham

Melbourne Rebels skipper Scott Higginbotham has set his team the task of turning around its season within the next month.
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The Rebels will start that challenge with the daunting prospect of playing the Australian conference-leading Canberra Brumbies at AAMI Park on Friday night, armed with a game plan to stop rival full-back Jesse Mogg from strutting his stuff.

Higginbotham said while the team could use reasons, such as inexperience, for its disappointing 1-3 start,  its season was approaching the point of no return, which will be marked by its second bye in round 11.

The Rebels embark on a New Zealand tour next week when they will face the Highlanders and Chiefs, and their next home game will be against the Western Force in round 10, on April 18.

”It’s obviously frustrating but we’re still a young side and an inexperienced side and we’ve still got a lot of work to do, and it’s just going to take time,” he said.

”I don’t want to be saying with eight games down that’s it’s still early in the season and there’s still time. Something has to happen definitely before our next bye. We really need to clock up some wins.”

Higginbotham said the Rebels knew what to expect from the Brumbies and go into the game attempting to restrict Mogg’s opportunities.

”The Brumbies play a very structured game,” he said. “They’ve been playing the same brand of football for the last couple of years – the thing about that is that they do it well.

”I think basically it’s just about how hard you’re willing to work to challenge that style of football. It’s a very straight-forward style that they play so for us you’ve just got to work hard and maybe we haven’t been working hard enough.

”Mogg has got a great boot on him and you saw when they played the Waratahs, if you give him space and time to figure out what he’s going to do, he’ll make you pay.”

Higginbotham said the Rebels could go a long way to changing their fortunes by reducing the number of needless penalties.

”Sometimes you’ll get decisions where a lot can go either way and, to be honest, I think that’s the way refereeing is going at the moment. It’s no excuse, we’ve just got to be harder. And with those breakdown penalties, we’ve got to play more to the book and be a bit more straight-forward with our technique.”

Rebels coach Tony McGahan has made six changes to the team that was overrun by NSW, with half-back Luke Burgess relegated to the bench in favour of Nic Stirzaker, who will be playing his first game since suffering an ankle sprain in the first trial game.

McGahan said he was looking for a ”new voice” to direct the team and has placed his faith in the inexperienced halves pairing of Stirzaker and Bryce Hegarty.

Colby Faingaa has also replaced blindside-flanker Sean McMahon in the line-up and will be looking to prove his value as a starting player against his former club.

”I’m just trying to play good rugby and I’ve been in and out of the starting team,” he said. ”I’m not trying to prove anything to the Brumbies, I’m trying to prove my worth to the Rebels and keep my spot.”

Meanwhile, Wallabies inside-centre Christian Lealiifano will make his Super Rugby return from the Brumbies’ bench after undergoing ankle surgery five months ago.

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St Kilda coach Alan Richardson wary of Giants

St Kilda’s Sam Fisher continues to battle a hamstring injury. Photo: Paul Jeffers St Kilda’s Sam Fisher continues to battle a hamstring injury. Photo: Paul Jeffers
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St Kilda’s Sam Fisher continues to battle a hamstring injury. Photo: Paul Jeffers

St Kilda’s Sam Fisher continues to battle a hamstring injury. Photo: Paul Jeffers

St Kilda will continue without a pair of best and fairest winners for at least the next two games, and perhaps for longer.

Reigning Trevor Barker Award winner Jack Steven, and dual club champion Sam Fisher are taking longer than hoped to return from their respective foot and hamstring injuries.

St Kilda coach Alan Richardson said Steven is “a couple of weeks away” while Fisher remains a less certain proposition.

“[It’s] a frustrating one for him. It’s been a week for probably about a month now,” Richardson said.

“He hasn’t quite been able to respond to the extra load we’re putting in.

“He’s a chance to be ready next week; probably looks a little bit more likely to be another week, but we’ll just wait and see.”

Richardson is not underestimating what will be a confident Giants side after their  round-one upset of Sydney.

“We copped them two weeks before that up at Wagga Wagga and they were very impressive,” Richardson said.

“They’ve got some incredible talent; they’ve got another pre-season into their young runners and it shows.

“The way that they played, the physical nature of their game against Sydney, suggests that they’re going to be really physical in there, too, so we rate them very highly.”

The first-year coach was generally pleased with how his young charges were tracking.

“There were some areas of the game [against Melbourne] we were really happy with. We thought our attack on the footy, our ability to put pressure on, was good,” Richardson said.

“There’s certainly some areas to work on, there’s no doubt about that, we have no illusions about the fact that we’ve started on a journey.

“There’s going to be some young players and with that potentially is some inconsistency and some non-compliance, not through lack of want, but that’s what you get with young groups.”

Richardson also agreed that the recently mooted idea of the Brisbane Lions’ list manager to make future draft picks available for trade had significant merit.

“That makes sense. I think speaking to some at the AFL, their concern is if clubs were to get that wrong, what does that do to the future of your footy club?” he said.

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Warwick McFadyen works for The Age newspaper.

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