Using Money to Track Swine Flu

by Fred Lee on 5 May 2009 4 comments
Photo: Sufi Nawaz

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.
 

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Guest's picture

This is an interesting read..money and spread of swine flu do not seem to have any link to a normal person, but, these gentlemen have found a correlation between them. Very interesting.Hope the worst case scenario does not come about.

Guest's picture

A worthy link between H1H1 (or any infectious disease, really) and money. This is an interesting correlation; makes sense. Most dynamic models follow complex systems mathematics anyway, so you could probably also find the same correlation between the confirmed spread of H1N1 and... the postal service, or truck transport of fruit, etc.

Guest's picture
Nicki

I've been thinking alot about Stephen King's The Stand lately. At the beginning of the book, Constant Reader can follow the thread as the flu starts to be spread (99.4% infection rate if I remember right) and the image that always stuck in my mind was similar - a police officer giving a speeding ticket crawling with flu bacteria, infected poker cards being dealt and infected money being spent. Makes me all itchy just thinking about it. :)

Fred Lee's picture

Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. Rajeev, I've always thought of money as a great way to spread infection. In fact, I grew up being taught that you should always wash your hands after handling money, but I still stuffed my mouth with coins to see how many I could fit in there.

MoneyEnergy, I agree that the complex systems share many similarities, mainly the random mathematical nature of it all. I believe the article mentioned something about cell phone usage and movement, as well.

And Nicki, I used to read Stephen King a lot when I was younger (I'm not as familiar with his stuff in the last ten years) and The Stand was one of his best, up there for me with The Shining and Pet Sematary (I also loved his more obscure stuff like Different Seasons).

Thanks to everyone for leaving a comment, and have a nice day.