You may have "Googled" the phrase "flu symptoms" the last time you thought you were coming down with the bug. If so, your query probably became part of a vast storehouse of information that Google's philanthropic arm is mining in an effort to identify flu trends as they emerge across the United States.
Google's calling the project/application simply: Google Flu Trends.
The basic thinking behind it is that people who search for certain flu-related keywords and phrases are at the leading edge of a flu outbreak.
The Google folks say their experimental system can offer a one- to two-week heads-up on where a flu outbreak is spreading, which could come in very handy for anyone working in the field of public health. (And for those of us who try every measure to avoid the flu each year.)
Google offers some interesting graphs -- using the Mid-Atlantic region as an example -- which show the relationship between their search query analysis and data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The application also allows you to plug in your zip code and search for a place to get a flu shot near you. Pretty handy.
But the question remains whether this will evolve into a serious tool for epidemiologists -- or if it'll just be another curious Web attraction that most of us peruse on our lunch breaks.