DHS issues data challenge to identify the next infectious outbreak in real time

DHS wants to speed up its ability to identify biothreats by tapping real-time data sources.

The Department of Homeland Security is issuing a challenge to the nation’s data scientists and innovators to help identify emerging biothreats faster and more effectively.

Current efforts to identify both natural and deliberate biothreats are frequently too slow and clunky, in part because they rely on the transmission of health data from various medical sources. For example, the Early Aberration Reporting System (EARS) analyzes data from emergency departments, 9-1-1 calls and physician offices along with workplace and school absentee information to identify deviations within certain geographic areas.

Similarly, the Electronic Surveillance System for the Early Notification of Community-Based Epidemics (ESSENCE) analyzes ICD-10 codes pharmacy prescriptions and lab test orders to identify rapid increases in infectious diseases.

Instead, DHS is looking for ways to pull from readily-accessible data sources that can generate warnings within 10 days of the first case of exposure using data available in less than 36 hours.

A $300,000 prize is up for grabs through the Hidden Signals Challenge, awarded to a contestant that help can help major cities intervene on potentially deadly infectious outbreaks or biological attacks. The judges include several biological threat and emergency management experts, as well as Ida Sim, M.D., co-director of the biomedical informatics program at the University of California San Francisco’s Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute.

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“The technologies and data sources available today present an unprecedented opportunity,” Acting Under Secretary for Science and Technology, William N. Bryan said in an announcement. “By harnessing new streams of information, we may ultimately identify and resolve an emerging threat faster.”

Health systems have been forced to deal with a range of potentially infectious outbreaks including Legionnaires' disease, Zika, Ebola and influenza. However, many states are still unprepared for a disease outbreak or an act of bioterrorism. 

Earlier this year, Thomas Frieden, M.D., the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) wrote that the agency has improved the way it collects and analyzes public health data to identify disease outbreaks and plans to leverage the cloud to expand public health data collection.