You might not think of internet oversharing as a lifesaving habit, but maybe it is. For more than a decade, epidemiologists and data scientists have scanned our search-engine queries and social-media posts with the goal of discerning who is infected, what they have, and where they live. But deriving meaning from our consultations with Dr. Google faces an ironic obstacle: For all our copious snaps, selfies, and status updates, we’re just not sharing enough to consistently forecast disease outbreaks—including the flu.
Of course, influenza’s reign of terror started long before the birth of our modern social networks. A hundred years ago, the infamous “Spanish flu” spread rapidly around the world, infecting a third of the population and killing at least 50 million people. With the rapid evolution of the virus, and increasing international travel and urbanization enabling the quick spread of illnesses, a modern version of that pandemic could cause twice as many casualties, along with widespread disruption to the global supply of food, medicine, and energy. It doesn’t matter where you live or what you do. The flu could infect you.
Even in the absence of Flumageddon, improving our ability to forecast the illness is vital. Influenza viruses kill up to 646,000 people worldwide every year, including as many as 56,000 people in the U.S. Americans pay as much as $5.8 billion in medical care annually to fight the pestilence. If we know when it’s coming, health agencies could push people to get vaccinated. Hospitals could plan ahead.