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Modeling the spread of the flu

May 4, 2009

The Question: Can we predict the progression of H1N1 virus by watching the movement of dollar bills?

If you’re going to create a statistical modeling system to predict the spread of a flu epidemic, you need a very good method for tracking the movement of people.

It turns out that one of the best sources of data may be a website designed to follow the paths taken by ordinary dollar bills:

The routes taken by millions of them are at the core of a computer model at Northwestern University that is predicting the epidemic’s future. Reassuringly, it foresees only about 2,000 cases by the end of this month, mostly in New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Houston.

The program uses data collected from Where’s George? a site created more than a decade ago by a programmer named Hank Eskin. Eskin marks each dollar bill he receives with a note asking the next person to come across it to record the bill’s serial number and their zip code online.

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