It turns out that all those frantic Google searches people make when they feel sick can be leveraged as a valuable public health tool.
A team of scientists from Harvard and University College London has found that spikes in Google searches for symptoms of COVID-19 coincide neatly with outbreak hotspots, according to an opinion piece in The New York Times by data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz — a system that could help public health experts better track, predict, and manage the coronavirus pandemic.
To clarify, no one is reading your particular searches. Rather, the team’s in-progress research, shared on the preprint server ArXiv, shows that aggregate trends in Google searches correlate with COVID-19 outbreaks.
It’s not a new technique: scientists previously found a link between Google searches and syphilis outbreaks. Stephens-Davidowitz also wrote that doctors also tried to use Google data to track swine flu, but in that case the data was too messy to be useful because people were googling symptoms out of fear rather than because they were sick.
In particular, the Harvard and London researchers found a link between searches for “I can’t smell,” as an example, and coronavirus outbreaks that matched some countries’ official data.
And while it would take a fair bit of extrapolation, that new correlation could hypothetically help health officials track and better plan for the outbreak in countries with spotty or missing data.
READ MORE: Google Searches Can Help Us Find Emerging Covid-19 Outbreaks [The New York Times]
More on disease tracking: Syphilis Google Searches Help Public Officials Predict New Cases