Google Teams Up With Scientists To Track STD Outbreaks

CREDIT: Shutterstock/Dylan Petrohilos

Google thinks it has what it takes to stop the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. STDs, such as syphilis, are on the rise, so the tech giant has teamed up with researchers with the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) to use Google searches for real-time disease tracking.

Google has been sending search engine data to researchers at UIC and the CDC who then develop analytical models used to track infectious diseases, Kaiser Health News reported. Researchers scour Google’s data for certain search phrases such as “painful urination” or other STD symptoms and compare their frequency with an STD’s estimated number of cases.

Once a trend is established, results can then grouped by location (city and state) that is weighted and combined with other available data. The end result is a picture of where an infectious disease is spreading before government health agencies publish the official number of cases.

The project has the potential to “revolutionize STD surveillance,” UIC epidemiology professor and researcher Supriya Mehta told Kaiser Health News. STD rates are highest among those aged 15 to 24 years, a group that is also most likely to go online for help. According to Pew Research, about one in four teens are online “almost constantly” with 92 percent of teens using the internet daily.

Being able to predict disease trends could help quell the spread of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis — all of which saw significant jumps in the number of diagnosed cases in 2014, according to the CDC. The sooner an outbreak is detected, the sooner health agencies can alert vulnerable populations, health care professionals, other organizations, and the public at large to encourage individuals to protect themselves, seek treatment, or get tested.

Google’s STD tracking project isn’t the first time researchers and government agencies called on the tech community to solve public health crises. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation endowed $100,000 to the University of Wollongong in Australia in 2014 to develop a better, more pleasurable condom.

New York City health officials mined negative restaurant reviews on Yelp to track foodborne illnesses. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University trawled Twitter and location data to track influenza outbreaks in 2013.

Google previously tried to track the flu also, relying a similar search engine data-mining method used in its STD project. Google Flu Trends was criticized for missing key correlations between search terms and the CDC’s data. But with years to tweak its analytical models, Google’s STD project might succeed where Flu Trends fell short.