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The flu could be your friend on Valentine's Day

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  February 3, 2014 09:33 AM

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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.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

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.

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