If you don't have dinner reservations yet for Valentine's Day, you're behind the eight ball. But even if the best tables have been snatched up already, there is still one thing that could save you: a flu outbreak.
A new study led by Elaine O. Nsoesie, a physician at Harvard Medical school and published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, used eight months of data from OpenTable—the restaurant reservation website—and compared it against flu trends. It’s part of a growing body of research that uses things like search engine data and social media hashtags to infer underlying public health trends. In this case, the researchers looked at four U.S. cities, including Boston, and five cities in Mexico. They found that when flu rates spiked, table availability went up, too.
If you’re considering seizing on this opportunity, keep this fact of the study in mind: The researchers checked table availability 15 minutes prior to their desired reservation time, which allowed them to take advantage of any last-minute (potentially sickness-induced) cancellations.
Of course, it’s anti-social to root for a flu outbreak just so you can get a primetime reservation, and also risky, because the outbreak might get you, too. But then again, eating dinner at 10:00 pm isn’t fun, either. If you want to keep an eye on things in Boston, you can monitor Google Flu Trends data for the city. At the moment, things are looking up for the procrastination set.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.