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By GCN Staff

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DARPA challenges teams to predict virus spread

The latest software challenge from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency asks teams to work at epidemic speed to accurately forecast the spread of the Chikungunya virus (CHIKV).

The mosquito-borne virus – which causes a debilitating illness – is now expanding through the Western Hemisphere. Governments and health organizations could anticipate steps to limit its spread if they had accurate forecasts of where and when it would appear, DARPA said in its announcement of the challenge.

Modeling the future spread of infectious diseases is extremely challenging, DARPA said. Current models tend to be based on historic data. Although there are numerous sources of potentially useful data that could be incorporated into a forecast, it is difficult to predict which will be most informative, as different types of data may be more or less predictive under different conditions and regions, the research agency said.

“The science of forecasting is a work in progress. It’s akin to trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle with some of the pieces missing and a vague sketch of what the finished image should look like,” said Col. Matthew Hepburn, the DARPA program manager for the CHIKV Challenge.  “Identifying and acquiring the right data points and figuring out how to link them requires interdisciplinary coordination.”

In fact, one goal of DARPA’s challenge is to inspire the creation of teams drawn from multiple disciplines, including not only specialists in public health and infectious disease, but also experts in mathematics, meteorology, entomology, computer science and bioinformatics, among other fields. 

“The CHIKV Challenge is exciting on many levels,” Hepburn said. “For one, Chikungunya is already here in the Americas, so teams are going to have to work at the speed of an epidemic to build their models. But equally exciting, we believe this effort could lead to the creation of tools that work even faster than the speed of an epidemic, giving us the opportunity to act effectively before an infectious disease actually arrives and spreads.”

A robust and scalable forecasting tool could find uses in a variety of sectors, including emergency response and humanitarian assistance, in addition to public health.

Full details, rules, and registration instructions for the Challenge are available at: http://www.innocentive.com/DARPAChikvChallenge.  

Posted by GCN Staff on Aug 18, 2014 at 12:23 PM


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