Where’s the Money? Tracking Future Epidemics

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There’s one popular web site, Where’s George (www.wheresgeorge.com), which is billed as a “United States currency tracking project.” It is a site that basically focuses on tracking the circulation of money around the world. That’s right — they follow where each dollar bill goes, what countries it visits, and, much for our health purposes here, whose hands it touches.

 Researchers in both the U.S. and Germany are teaming up in order to use the technology from this web site in their pursuit of gaining further insight into far more important matters — predicting the spread of infectious diseases around the world. And at a time where the words “bird” and “flu” get thrown around every evening on the news, this could be a very valuable and perhaps even lifesaving endeavor.

 The idea behind this research project is that money travels around just like disease does — from person to person, randomly and quickly.

 So what better way to try and discern how a pandemic might spread? By looking at the flow of money, of course! In order for money to travel, it must travel with humans — and researchers developed a mathematical model of how people travel that could be used to actually draw out how a pandemic might spread. And that, of course, would yield insights into how to stop it. Researchers claim that they can now simulate how an influenza pandemic could possibly spread throughout Europe by using their model.

 So why don’t the researchers just look at travel data in order to figure this out, instead of money? Because humans move in many different ways and by using many different means of transport. With cars, trains, boats, and planes it’s extremely difficult to develop any sort of accurate picture of how people travel.

 That’s why the researchers focused on money instead — because no matter where or how humans travel, money goes along for the ride. And it’s not that difficult to track the money trail. Marked dollar bills can be tracked every time they are spent and every time they change hands.

 On the site Where’s George, roughly 50 million bills are registered, meaning they can be tracked wherever they go. Information from this web site allowed researchers to develop their mathematical theory about travel.

 They tested the theory by looking at airline traffic and destinations and found it was very similar to currency travel patterns. Their ultimate goal is to reveal “universal characteristics of modern pandemics.”

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