Details about the spread of the flu around the country may strike fear into the hearts of public health officers.
But at Traditional Medicinals, the Sebastopol tea company, knowing where the flu is flaring triggers a different response: a rush to ensure that store shelves are stocked with soothing tea leaves.
For a company with $50 million in annual revenues that sells 80 percent of its product during the six-month cold and flu season, forecasting consumer demand is increasingly important, said Blair Kellison, CEO of Traditional Medicinals.
That's the main job of Frank Hinton, inside sales and planning manager at Traditional Medicinals. During flu season, he spends a good chunk of his day checking on public health statistics and learning where in the country Internet users are searching for all those icky words related to the flu.
Maps compiled by the Centers for Disease Control showing the incidence of flu reports have grown increasingly bleak over the past few weeks, with widespread flu blanketing most of the country.
"We are in the midst of it," Hinton said, looking at a color-coded map of the United States blaring bright orange to indicate widespread reports of the flu. "It's heavy."
The prevalence of freely available data online has been a boon to companies like Traditional Medicinals, which used to rely on historic sales data, trade journals, associations and word of mouth in its attempt to create a crystal ball. Now it's added data from the CDC, Google, WebMD and Kleenex to its predictive modeling.
"As a company, we're putting a lot of resources behind getting information," Hinton said. "If there's pretty vibrant cold and flu activity in the South, we can look at our southern distribution centers, check how they're doing, see if they need to order more."
"You could really be the hero or the goat," Hinton added about his role as forecaster. "Last year, the forecast at the end of the year was dead-on, and that was in a big year."
Just type "google flu" into a search engine and you'll find your way to Google Flu Trends, a product that has maps and charts outlining the hot spots around the country.
To make its charts, Google tallies up how often people have searched for phrases like "flu symptoms" and pairs those searches with IP address information to guess where the search originated.
And it works. The Centers for Disease Control and prevention, which collaborated with Google, release data on actual incidence of the flu. Google's flu charts often find the location of flu hot spots about two weeks before the CDC data is released, according to Google.
"The Internet has opened some doors information-wise that were not there in the past," Hinton said. "There's so much more. It's crazy."
Another tracking tool Hinton uses was developed by Kleenex. The tissue company has developed a system that enables consumers to predict how many boxes of tissues they'll need by analyzing their proximity to folks infected with the flu and colds. On its website, www.my-achoo.com, users input their ZIP codes and answer whether or not anyone is sick in their household. Kleenex aggregates the data and estimates the likelihood that the inquiring website visitor will become infected.
WebMD uses a similar tactic of crowdsourcing to produce maps that show the severity of the cold and flu in regions across the country. According to the website, Sonoma County was reporting moderate to severe cold and flu symptoms at the end of last week. Lake and Napa counties reported similar levels. Meanwhile, the malaise in neighboring Mendocino County was only mild to moderate.