Using Money to Track Swine Flu
In Frank Herbert’s (author or Dune) 1982 sci-fi classic The White Plague, the character John Roe O’Neill is a molecular biologist who is driven to madness by the senseless murder of his wife and children by IRA terrorists. In the quest to exact revenge on the world that he deems responsible for this horrific act, he develops a “white plague” that is 100% lethal and infects and kills only women. He unleashes his biological nightmare on the world and spreads the disease by way of infected money.
Maybe he was onto something.
Mathematicians and engineers at Northwestern University have developed a computer model that tracks and predicts the spread of swine flu based on another computer model that follows the spread of money as it makes its way across the country.
This flu model has not been around that long and thus may lack some credibility, but it is interesting to note that the team at Northwestern independently predicted a similar number of cases as a team at Indiana University using a similar model with different algorithms.
And while neither team hit the nail right on the head, they were close. They predicted 150 to 170 cases by Sunday, compared to the actual 226 cases reported by the Center for Disease Control (CDC).
The models are based on the two very large data sets of air traffic and commuter traffic patterns for the entire country, as well as the numbers from the website, Where’s George?, which was developed by ten years ago by a programmer who was interested in seeing the extent that money moves across the country. To do this, he marked every dollar bill that he encountered with a note asking its holder to enter the bill’s serial number and whereabouts (the ZIP code) into his web site. By 2006 he had over 100 million hits.
The team at Northwestern realized that money transactions represented the perfect face-to-face model for the spread of flu, and set about using it to create their own. Adjusting for such issues as fear, medical intervention in the form of antiviral therapy, and even school closings, all of which can affect the numbers, the findings are interesting, to say the least.
For instance, the model predicts that the swine flu hot spots would in New York, California, and Texas, followed by Florida and Illinois. In the worst case scenario, the model would predict that by mid July everyone in the country will have contracted swine flu, assuming the standard doubling time of a pandemic to be every 2.3 days.
The team at Northwestern stressed, however, that they do not try to forecast beyond four weeks because not only would it be unscientific, but the situation would be too unpredictable due to the volatile and unpredictable nature of the flu virus as well as people’s behavior.
It is also is important to keep in mind that the cases in this country have been, for the most part, either mild or highly treatable. Furthermore, there are several steps that you can take to do your part. Practice good hygiene and wash your hands before every meal, especially in public places. If you don’t have access to a sink, carry some hand sanitizer.
Get plenty of rest and eat right. If you suspect you may be coming down with the flu, consult your physician and get more information on the CDC website. Whatever you do, don’t go to work or school. When you’re feeling ill, your time is better spent at home, resting with some hot soup and a good book.
Maybe just stay away from The White Plague, at least until you feel better.