We all recognize what a valuable source of data the Internet can be. Whether it’s a Web site or social media such as message boards and blogs, there’s an infinite wealth of data that can be extracted online. A new Web tool from Google written about in the New York Times yesterday is one with potentially useful applications for our industry. According to the article, the tool — known as Google Flu Trends — may be able to detect regional outbreaks of the flu up to 10 days before they are reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). How? Well, Google has found a correlation between how many people search for flu-related topics and how many people actually have flu symptoms. It says a pattern emerges when all the flu-related search queries from each state and region are added together. When compared with data from a surveillance system managed by the CDC, Google discovered that some search queries tend to be popular exactly when flu season is happening. By counting how often it sees these search queries, it can estimate how much flu is circulating in various regions of the United States. What this amounts to is an early warning system for influenza outbreaks. We’re wondering what other applications this tool might have for insurers managing pandemic risks…