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Mercer student tracks pollen counts using Google

Thirty million to 60 million people are affected annually by allergic rhinitis, the technical term for having a runny, red nose and watery eyes.

One Mercer University student has gained attention by using online searches to track changes in pollen counts, which will hopefully keep people better prepared for allergy season.

During a summer internship with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Matthew Parker realized that Google Trends could be used as a proxy measure to follow the ups and downs of pollen counts.

His research secured him an invitation to the American Meteorological Society’s annual meeting on Jan. 7 in Phoenix and a featured article in Science News, a nonprofit news site committed to engaging the public on scientific research.

Parker, a molecular biology major, said he was lucky to have been able to work for the Climate and Health program at the CDC, categorizing pollen data.

“As I was doing the research, it didn’t feel like I was doing research,” Parker said. “(Data) from 1992 to 2011 is a daunting amount of pollen counts, (but) it helped me learn I am more research-oriented.”

Currently, the only way to determine when pollen spikes occur is through data collected by pollen monitoring stations, which must be managed by staff with expertise, Parker said.

About 19 states lack certified monitoring stations while the rest have anywhere from one to 11 stations scattered within their borders.

Parker said the specialness of his work lies with its public access—anyone can use Google Trends and receive the same results.

When people search for “pollen” or “allergies” or any top brand antihistamine medications like Zyrtec, the Trend data spikes when actual pollen spikes, Parker said.

He compared the Google Trend data from 2004 to 2011 with information collected at the pollen monitoring station, specifically focusing on ragwood, pine and oak allergies.

Both measures matched and even accounted for an unusual double spike in 2011.

Parker believes Google Trends, although not a perfect system, has advantages for being a proxy measure. It makes the data more simple to understand by normalizing it. Each weekly search spike is divided by the highest peak, so the numbers are between one and 100.

Google Trends has proven successful for other health issues such as Lyme disease and influenza.

One flaw is that Google only stores search information for locations with a sizable internet traffic.

Another drawback of the proxy measure, in Parker’s opinion, is the lag time. The trend data illustrates spikes on a weekly basis, but if the statistics of every day could be obtained, the counts would be more accurate.

“If we see trends occur over several years, we can possibly predict when they are going to happen later on,” Parker said.

Parker says students should care because he guarantees people are affected here.

“People will now be able to look online and say, ‘Oh, pollen peaked yesterday. I should go buy some Claritin, so I won’t be so drowsy,’” Parker said.

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