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Web Game Helps Predict Spread of Epidemics 201

Posted by samzenpus
from the follow-the-money dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Using data from the web game wheresgeorge.com, which traces the travels of dollar bills, scientists have unveiled statistical laws of human travel and developed a mathematical description that can be used to model the spread of infectious disease."
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Web Game Helps Predict Spread of Epidemics

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  • by mendaliv (898932) on Wednesday January 25, 2006 @10:24PM (#14564311)
    If you try to login or register at Where Is George [whereisgeorge.com] you get a message that they're taking it down temporarily because of heavy user load...

    Too bad, imagine the influx of data if they got everyone who reads slashdot to participate.
  • by Hindustu (949303) on Wednesday January 25, 2006 @10:25PM (#14564314)
    The only dollar bill I remember possessing with the "Where's George" stamp on it came from a man working at a pizza shop with gigantic cold sores.
  • by Entropy248 (588290) on Wednesday January 25, 2006 @10:25PM (#14564318) Journal
    This article is really light on details, but the concept sounds strikingly like something that would be predictable through Seldon's psychohistory. Was Asimov right in his premise? Are human beings nothing more than complicated animals working through complex, predictable behavior? I wonder how much of what we do on a daily basis is a result of free will when I hear about science like this. Am I just a statistic? Governments would love equations that predict human behavior on a macroscopic scale.
    • Good call! Maybe they should set up a Foundation to reduce the duration of the impending dark age. :)
    • Governments would love equations that predict human behavior on a macroscopic scale.

      Ironically, the less that governments get involved in individual lives, the more predictable the big picture is (since the marketplace is extremely efficient at exposing and serving human needs/desires).
    • by mattjb0010 (724744) on Wednesday January 25, 2006 @10:41PM (#14564418) Homepage
      I wonder how much of what we do on a daily basis is a result of free will when I hear about science like this.

      Overall statistical laws don't say much about free will or not. There are always going to be regular patterns in behaviour (caused by things like the fact that most people don't want to walk 10 miles to work every day).

      Governments would love equations that predict human behavior on a macroscopic scale.

      The Australian Reserve Bank uses equations to predict macroeconomic conditions and adjusts interest rates accordingly.
      • by Mr. Underbridge (666784) on Wednesday January 25, 2006 @11:26PM (#14564697)
        Overall statistical laws don't say much about free will or not. There are always going to be regular patterns in behaviour (caused by things like the fact that most people don't want to walk 10 miles to work every day).

        Kind of like how Heisenberg's principle and statistical mechanics aren't mutually exclusive, for the physics crowd out there.

    • by houstonbofh (602064) on Wednesday January 25, 2006 @10:44PM (#14564435)
      "The physicists were intrigued: Like viruses, money is transported by people from place to place. " The problem is that you give a bill to only one person. Most disease is not like that.
      • Right, but they can use this information to create ... well, a vector field, I suppose, of how people travel. That's all they really need.
      • by kfg (145172)
        The problem is that you give a bill to only one person. Most disease is not like that.

        Because you give more than one bill to more than one person. Doorknobs and money are the most common way to transmit contact diseases.

        If you wish to follow the flu virus. . .wait for it, wait for it. . .

        Follow the money.

        KFG
      • "The physicists were intrigued: Like viruses, money is transported by people from place to place. " The problem is that you give a bill to only one person. Most disease is not like that.

        That you give a bill to only one person isn't significant. Tracking a large number of bills across a large number of people is sufficient. It might also help you to imagine "one bill" as the equivalent as "one germ", which you *do* give to only one person.

        A real problem is that the set of pairs of people that exchange

      • by elrous0 (869638) on Thursday January 26, 2006 @09:59AM (#14566694)
        Researchers found that a surprising number of these bill ended up in their local senators's pockets. They also found that a surprising number of large companies were a potential breeding-ground for infections, including Halliburton, Bechtel, Boeing, and Lockeed-Martin.

        -Eric

    • Where's George is an interesting and fun idea, but the data collected from this voluntary endeavor can not possibly hold a candle to other sources of data on human tracking, such as the GPS in your cell phone.

      If the government wants to learn patterns of human transport and interaction in the name of preventing the spread of communicable disease, it could try to subpoena records from credit card companies and have an enormous resource at it's disposal.
    • Are human beings nothing more than complicated animals working through complex, predictable behavior?

      Yes.

      Unless you believe a God really singled humans out as the chosen ones free from the rules all other animals live by. Like all other mammals, we need to eat, sleep, and breath.....

      What seperates us is our brainsize/intelligence which can override some base-behavior/instincts (in our favor) but not all of it.

      Consider how much of you behavior is truly routine. For example, for the majority of Americans, 1

      • Free will decisions don't have to be 'life changing' to be free will. Simply choosing between vanilla and chocolate is enough to make a 'free' choice (if indeed it is 'free').
        • Free will decisions don't have to be 'life changing' to be free will. Simply choosing between vanilla and chocolate is enough to make a 'free' choice (if indeed it is 'free').


          Unless the reward center in your brain causes you to choose vanilla since you might be hardwired (or conditioned) to like it more;)
          • Well, yes. My point was that 'routine' doesn't necessarilly negate free will though. No matter how mundane or repetitive the decisions we make, they could still be a result of free will. It's impossible really to prove one way or the other...
    • by Stan Vassilev (939229) on Wednesday January 25, 2006 @11:31PM (#14564724)
      "Was Asimov right in his premise? Are human beings nothing more than complicated animals working through complex, predictable behavior? I wonder how much of what we do on a daily basis is a result of free will when I hear about science like this. Am I just a statistic?"

      You're not a statistic, but statistics work because people in the same groups as you think in a similar fashion and do similar stuff. This is why statistics can work with a representative sample versus every single unit from the group they study, and still guess pretty close.

      There's nothing scary or new about this, it's been known for ages to the people doing said statistics.
      As a matter of fact, you gotta be happy about it, because our similar and mutually redundant behaviour ensured our success.

      If everyone was truly unique and on his own mind, we'd still not have a common language, let alone civilisation and technology.

      Also, of course we're animals, what did you think we're plants or something? We're mammals, but we have larger capacity to learn new shit and more advanced communication. That's it.

      Maybe you gotta realize that animals aren't "just animals". They dream, have nightmares, are curious, eager to learn and explore, can get depressed, happy, anxious and so on.

      So a human is nothing but an animal, but I don't see where's the problem with that.
      • by cgenman (325138) on Thursday January 26, 2006 @01:46AM (#14565331) Homepage
        Thank you.

        It is the difference between Sociology and Psychology, and a lot of people seem to take it personally.

        If food stores in a given country drop below a certain level, you can make a reasonable prediction of the chances of open rebellion breaking out. That's Sociology. If socioeconomic indicators drop X%, you can predict with relative accuracy an increase in suicide rates of Y%. That's Sociology. If you put a million people in a trust game, you know roughly how many of them are going to stab eachother in the back for a given payout level. That's Sociology.

        If you tried to make the same predictions about an individual person, you'd find that you had no fucking clue what that one person was going to do. That's Psychology.

        Sociologists aren't making predictions about you, they make predictions about the average behaviors of average groups of people.

        But you're not average. You're special. Everyone is special. That's fine, and not far from the truth. But people have weights pulling them towards one decision or another, and maybe you will say no and two of your friends will say yes. And you're all special. And throw a thousand people into that decision, and 60% will say no and 40% will say yes. And throw a million people in there and 64% will say no and 36% will say yes. And throw a billion people in there and 63.3% will say no and 36.7% will say yes.

        Every individual person is special and unique, but take lots and lots and lots of people and patterns emerge. No one can predict what one person is going to do anymore than anyone can predict where a molecule in a cloud of gas is going to go. But you can still make accurate predictions about which way the wind is blowing.

        • "Every individual person is special and unique, but take lots and lots and lots of people and patterns emerge."

          You know that sounds kinda like trying to have the pie and eat it too. Sure sociology gets inaccurate on a person level, but to put that aside, many people hold dear the fact we're friggin' awesome and unique.

          We're not. There are at least a bunch of guys like you who have almost your face, some who have almost your manner, or knowledge, fashion preferences or view towards the world. And there's eve
        • Every individual person is special and unique

          I'm not. That's what makes me so special. And unique. Oh...

          Justin.

    • Not really. Many statistical quantities have little to do with the underlying behavior of the specific objects. For example, the Central Limit Theorem says that the average of a large number of trials of an experiment's distribution will approach a bell curve, regardless of the original experiment's distribution. (One example is rolling a dice, and recording the average. With one trial, the distribution is uniform, i.e., you have an equal probability of rolling anything between 1 and 6. With two rolls, you
    • by kfg (145172)
      Are human beings nothing more than complicated animals working through complex, predictable behavior?

      The motion of a molecule within a gas is random. The gas follows the ideal gas law as the aggregate average of all the randomly moving molecules.

      You yourself are no more predictable as a physical object than the average of the probability functions of all your subatomic particles.

      Predictable macro behavior does not imply predictable micro behavior.

      Am I just a statistic?

      What happens if you remove the word "ju
    • The real life and philosophical consequences of Probability and Statistics have been somewhat distorted in public view. Here's a simple example:

      If you toss a coin, in the LONG RUN, it will be 50-50 for heads and tails. But the fact of that matter is that you CANNOT predict what the result of the next toss is.

      This is similarly extended to the dice.

      While you are a composite part of population statistics, you are NOT "just a statistic". Individuals differ from person to person, but statistics hold true f

    • Well, for sure, we are not random. Maybe a statistical tool can even give figures like "in your condition of education, wealth, geographical position, social status, there is a 83% probability that you will vote republican in the next elections." So what ? you are still free to be part of the 17% part of the statistics. The statistician doesn't care, as long as his studies cover a large enough population.
    • I think the "Where's George" idea is interesting and a clever way of mapping interpersonal, semi-anonymous human transaction pathways. The personal ones are easier to document because we remember them. It's too bad this can't also take into account electronic transactions initiated at points of sale.

      The "bad science fiction" of this heading is a reference to Frank Herbert's atrocious novel* The White Plague wherein an well-intentioned but severely misguided scientist releases a plague that kills only (and

  • now i'm gonna sanitize all my money, and i'm kinda concerned about things i buy from overseas. The bird flu is pretty nasty!
  • The real reports (Score:5, Informative)

    by MonkeyBoyo (630427) on Wednesday January 25, 2006 @10:38PM (#14564389)
    Here is the blurb in Nature [ucsb.edu], Nature's Editor's Summary [nature.com]
    and here is the PDF research paper The scaling laws of human travel [ucsb.edu].
  • Woohoo! (Score:5, Informative)

    by NathanBFH (558218) on Wednesday January 25, 2006 @10:40PM (#14564405)
    I remember coming across this site several years ago (2001? 2002?) and just for fun entered a couple bills to see how it worked. Since then, I totally forgot about it until this Slashdot reminded me! I'm very curious to find out how 'my' bills are doing these days. I do remember, however, reading somewhere that the average lifespan of a one dollar bill is less than a year or two, so the chances my bills made it past the few months I handled them may be slim.
    • I first discovered the site a couple of years, also, when I noticed a bill stamped with "Track this bill at Wheresgeorge.com". I have entered quite a few, (some I found and some I stamped) and while some travelled quickly across the country, some took almost a year to go to the next town.

      There are a lot of people, in fact I'd hazard to say the majority, who simply don't notice their money. Also, believe it or not, some people don't have internet access. So I wonder how many people handled the bills, and wh

    • I bought a T-shirt from the site, probably about 6 years ago. Never re-visited the site, because you couldn't enter dollar bills from Europe. A pity, because at that time I still had to pay for some software, merchandise etc. by sending dollar bills around the globe.

      I don't wear the T-shirt very often, but when I do, people always aks me what it is about. And I tell them "Oh, it is this site from long ago that had this cool idea on tracking dollar bills on-line, but that has probably ceased to be years b

  • by mshiltonj (220311) <mshiltonj@gmaPARISil.com minus city> on Wednesday January 25, 2006 @10:42PM (#14564424) Homepage Journal
    Zombie Infection Simulation Machine! [sothisisacomic.com]

    Brians! Must eat brains!
  • by caluml (551744) <<gro.mulac.erehseogmaps> <ta> <todhsals>> on Wednesday January 25, 2006 @10:47PM (#14564463) Homepage
    How long until people start trying to think up ways of using bank-notes to deliver deadly chemical or biological agents to the mass population? They've already discovered "radioactive banknotes in Kazakhstan [yahoo.com]".
    • deliver deadly chemical or biological agents to the mass population?

      This could get modded as funny, but its only half-meant to be so: Do you not already know what's on money? I don't think it would be possible to make it more dirty or infectious
    • by Thing 1 (178996) on Wednesday January 25, 2006 @11:06PM (#14564576) Journal
      Frank Herbert wrote a book, "The White Plague", that was about exactly that. A researcher was vacationing with his family in Ireland, and watched (from the hotel window) his wife and kids get killed as they walked next to a car which blew up.

      So he created a virus that killed only women, and released it to the world via paper money.

      The only downside is the book had about 3x as many words as a gripping novel would have, or I was a bored teenager; I haven't read it in a dog's age.


    • How long until people start trying to think up ways of using bank-notes to deliver deadly chemical or biological agents to the mass population?

      Probbably a harder thing to do than you think. Any chemical agent would have to not break down under heat, light, etc and work as some kind of contact poison since people don't tend to eat currency. Biological agents don't tend to like the dry conditions typcially present on currency, so the virus/bacteria/etc tends to die before it can spread very far. Most infec
  • Urban Dead (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Saeger (456549) <farrellj AT gmail DOT com> on Wednesday January 25, 2006 @10:51PM (#14564496) Homepage
    Urban Dead [urbandead.com] gets no love? That webgame is truly infectious -- what with its "243,575 dead and rising" :)
  • Get AIDs Today! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by ral8158 (947954) on Wednesday January 25, 2006 @11:07PM (#14564578)
    It's not nearly as infective as GetAIDs [getaids.be]... A web game you can actually get AIDs from! What will they think of next?
  • Inversely Related? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by hooded1 (89250) on Wednesday January 25, 2006 @11:08PM (#14564583) Homepage
    Uhm.... don't diseases tend to go in the opposite direction that money does? Like aren't the poorest places in the world also the places with the most diseases.
    • by 246o1 (914193)
      Transfers of money are indicative of the movement of people (though obviously not a 1-1 correlation). Finding patterns of money's travel will also show patterns of possible disease spread, as those moving the money are possible vectors of contagion.

      Diseases SUCCEED in poor places because the lack of nutrition/clean water/medicine/education/rape-prevention etc. A new (or significantly different variation of a current) disease, however, that is transfered by, say, touch or close proximity (airborn transmiss
      • Many "modern" diseases also originate in the tropics, which
        through a variety of socio-economic and political reasons
        tend to be poor. Historically in Europe they also sprung up
        when man and animal where continuously in close proximity.
        The might want to at least consider rifling through Guns,
        Germs and Steel. Certainly interesting/insightful, even if
        not authoritative/complete theory.
  • Load of nonsense (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 25, 2006 @11:08PM (#14564585)
    Wow, what a bunch of crap science. They're trying to track movement of people by where dollar bills show up?! WTF? When you buy something at a store that bill might go back into circulation immediately but its just as likely to be deposited in a bank. From what I understand, banks send cash to regional counting facilities. From there it is redistributed. It's impossible to track this movement. A bill deposited in San Francisco could easily turn up in LA, Portland, or Seattle without it being transported there by an individual traveler. What if a person in Seattle then gets that bill from the bank, hops a plane to New York, but doesn't enter it's information into that website and then spends the money in New York where it isn't recorded and then through a similar process the bill ends up in Kansas City? IF someone in Kansas City knows about the site and gives a rats ass about it and actually enters the bills serial number it now looks like someone in San Franciso travelled to Kansas City. How does this help understand the movement habits of humans? Like I said, this is crap science and does absolutely nothing to further our understanding of how diseases spread.
    • by jefu (53450)
      Take a few math courses, including one or two (more is better) in statistics before you spout completely nonsense. And if you're going to spout nonsense, at least justify it rather than randomly ranting - thus revealing yourself as not only an Anonymous Cowward, but also as an Ignorant and Idiotic Anonymous Coward.
  • by FleaPlus (6935) on Thursday January 26, 2006 @12:18AM (#14564962) Journal
    Another novel and interesting way I came across to predict the spread of infectious disease is the University of Iowa's Flu Prediction Market [uiowa.edu]. A description from their page:

    Information about influenza activity is diverse and widely distributed. Different health care professionals have different information regarding influenza activity. This information could be quite helpful in predicting future influenza activity if it could be aggregated and analyzed efficiently. However, because this information is disparate, standard research and statistical methods have not proven to be effective. Thus, the medical community does not have access to accurate influenza forecasts. The Influenza Prediction Market is an attempt to satisfy the need for accurate information regarding future influenza activity.

    The first experimental prediction market was the Iowa Electronic Market (IEM). It has developed methods to predict future events ranging from election results to movie box office receipts and has a forecasting record substantially superior to alternative mechanisms. We propose that markets for infectious diseases may be useful for predicting infectious disease activity quickly, accurately, and inexpensively by aggregating the expert opinion of health care professionals.


    They're currently working on expanding the system, but with their current market they give various health care workers $100 they can bid with, and depending on how accurate their bidding is they can get additional money.

  • Great.
    Now that the infrastructure is in place, we just need a system to let the dollar bill reproduce themselves so the analogy will be perfect !!!

    Actually, i am sure that some people have been constantly working on it from quite some time ...

    g
     
  • For all you hosers out there ;) there is a canadian version here:

    http://www.whereswilly.com/ [whereswilly.com]
  • They are basing their findings on people who remembered to take the time to report their bills on this website? What about the thousands or millions of people who don't? That would make for a pretty big error margin wouldn't it?
    • They are basing their findings on people who remembered to take the time to report their bills on this website? What about the thousands or millions of people who don't? That would make for a pretty big error margin wouldn't it?

      That depends. You can predict the behavior of a large group by measuring only the behavior of a small subgroup, provided the small subgroup is representative for the whole. That's how statistics works.

      So the question is, do people who remember to take the time to report their bil

      • Chances are higher they have a computer, which I would suspect means their income is a bit above average. Also the fact that they are entering serial numbers would indicate they have money... and spare time.

        Not saying your average hobo doesn't go to the library and enter his cash in every day on the public access terminal, just that significant chunks of the population are missing here, specifically chunks lacking money.

        Typically less affluent areas tend to be higher in disease as well, which may make the
        • Everyone has $1 bills. There are no people lacking money so badly that they do not handle $1 bills regularly. I've met a number of homeless people that make more money than I do just from panhandling.
          Internet access is everywhere too. There really are very few people who can't get online if they want to either from a net cafe, a friend, or a library.
  • I remeber visiting a site that adopted a similar concept - Book Crossing [bookcrossing.com]. Except, instead of dollar bills, they tracks books.

    You can assign each book a reference number at the site. Crossers can leave a book at any location once they are done. Those who pick the book can then goto the site to login information about where they picked it from and etc.

    Pro's and cons to each mechanism:

    Dollar bills:- Better to track since they are more widespread in usage as oppose to an eclectic few who might be interest

  • i dunno (Score:5, Funny)

    by syle (638903) <syle AT waygate DOT org> on Thursday January 26, 2006 @02:39AM (#14565495) Homepage
    Using games to track people is tricky though. I did a lot of research on this, and my findings showed that 80% of the population of the world are Night Elf females who just turned 18 and want to chat.
  • by Alkind (449960)
    So the healthiest place to be is in the printshop where they make the notes and the worst spot is where they destroy the notes. I would alarm the union if I worked in that building. Can't be that they do not have some laundries at strategic spots like Las Vegas. The mob understands the problem.
  • euro-tracker (Score:3, Informative)

    by wardv (949600) on Thursday January 26, 2006 @06:40AM (#14566001) Homepage
    Europeans can track their euro-bills here: http://www.eurobilltracker.com/ [eurobilltracker.com]
  • by NewToNix (668737)
    It might be a good idea to take some advice from Mark Twain, when reading this article.

    "There are three kinds of lies. Plain lies, Damn lies, and Statistics."

    Obligatory M. Twain Sig:
    "Post No Bills"

  • I have gotten a 'Where's George' and an 'I Grew Hemp' dollar bill.

    Apparently George was growing Hemp to help alleviate the side effects of treatment for certain infectious diseases.
    Man that guy was so ahead of his time.
  • Agent U.S.A [the-underdogs.org] Educational type simulation (U.S. States/Cities/Capitals) where the hero must fight an pandemic that travels via the railroad network.

From Sharp minds come... pointed heads. -- Bryan Sparrowhawk

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