A new study suggests that Wikipedia can be used as a predictive tool for disease outbreaks.
Researchers from Los Alamos National Laboratory examined the search data of the online encyclopedia from 2010 to 2013 to determine the trajectory of the spread of dengue fever in the United States, Poland, Japan, Thailand and Brazil, according to the Utah People's Post.
The findings showed a sudden peak in searches related to the disease during the outbreak; many people went online to seek possible cures and other information about the disease. The results were then compared to actual national health data.
"In the same way we check the weather each morning, individuals and public health officials can monitor disease incidence and plan for the future based on today's forecast. The goal of this research is to build an operational disease monitoring and forecasting system with open data and open source code," said study author Dr. Sara Del Valle of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
"This paper shows we can achieve that goal," she added.
The team also checked if they can program a computer to focus on particular regions. They intend to create a standard program, or forecasting tool, that can be used in any country to ensure accurate reporting.
Aside from dengue fever, researchers also used the same method for tuberculosis and influenza. They programmed the computer to forecast the outbreaks four weeks ahead of time.
While the results of the study seem considerable, other scientists were apprehensive about using Wikipedia for forecasting as there are regions that don't have access to the internet, and not everyone is familiar with Wikipedia.
"There are different things that drive people to Wikipedia, sometimes a new piece of research can drive people to go online," Dr. Heidi Larson from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said to BBC News.
Details of the study were published in the journal PLoS Computational Biology.