Subregional Nowcasts of Seasonal Influenza Using Search Trends.J Med Internet Res. 2017 11 06; 19(11):e370.JM
Limiting the adverse effects of seasonal influenza outbreaks at state or city level requires close monitoring of localized outbreaks and reliable forecasts of their progression. Whereas forecasting models for influenza or influenza-like illness (ILI) are becoming increasingly available, their applicability to localized outbreaks is limited by the nonavailability of real-time observations of the current outbreak state at local scales. Surveillance data collected by various health departments are widely accepted as the reference standard for estimating the state of outbreaks, and in the absence of surveillance data, nowcast proxies built using Web-based activities such as search engine queries, tweets, and access of health-related webpages can be useful. Nowcast estimates of state and municipal ILI were previously published by Google Flu Trends (GFT); however, validations of these estimates were seldom reported.
The aim of this study was to develop and validate models to nowcast ILI at subregional geographic scales.
We built nowcast models based on autoregressive (autoregressive integrated moving average; ARIMA) and supervised regression methods (Random forests) at the US state level using regional weighted ILI and Web-based search activity derived from Google's Extended Trends application programming interface. We validated the performance of these methods using actual surveillance data for the 50 states across six seasons. We also built state-level nowcast models using state-level estimates of ILI and compared the accuracy of these estimates with the estimates of the regional models extrapolated to the state level and with the nowcast estimates published by GFT.
Models built using regional ILI extrapolated to state level had a median correlation of 0.84 (interquartile range: 0.74-0.91) and a median root mean square error (RMSE) of 1.01 (IQR: 0.74-1.50), with noticeable variability across seasons and by state population size. Model forms that hypothesize the availability of timely state-level surveillance data show significantly lower errors of 0.83 (0.55-0.23). Compared with GFT, the latter model forms have lower errors but also lower correlation.
These results suggest that the proposed methods may be an alternative to the discontinued GFT and that further improvements in the quality of subregional nowcasts may require increased access to more finely resolved surveillance data.