Biocomplexity Institute’s Ebola-tested tools help set new standard for federal disease control

With the onset of summer, the species of mosquitoes known to transmit the Zika virus is emerging along the southeastern coast of the United States in greater numbers. Virginia Tech faculty and students are playing an important role in developing a toolset for researchers and federal disease control agents watching for an outbreak of the disease.

“Basically what we’re building here is Facebook for epidemiology nerds,” said Bryan Lewis, a research associate professor at the Biocomplexity Institute of Virginia Tech, scrolling past a series of posts announcing new data on every disease from flu to equine infectious anemia. “Every branch of the federal government with a hand in managing major outbreaks has a presence on here.”

The Biosurveillance Ecosystem (BSVE) Lewis is demonstrating isn’t the product of some new social media start-up. It’s an online network designed to help disease experts share information, identify warning signs of impending epidemics, and coordinate effective response strategies for ongoing outbreaks. The collaborative platform is overseen by the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

When a major outbreak occurs, government agencies need to be one step ahead of the disease, sending medical resources to regions that have already been hard-hit as well as those that are likely to be infected next.

Researchers in the Biocomplexity Institute’s Network Dynamics and Simulation Science Laboratory (NDSSL) have spent the past decade perfecting predictive modeling systems that can quickly estimate how epidemics and other crises will unfold.

These tools proved to be a major asset during the 2014 Ebola epidemic when the federal government tapped NDSSL analysts to direct the distribution of supplies and personnel throughout western Africa.

Now, with the arrival of BSVE, these same systems will be added to the standard toolset used by all federal disease control agents, helping them home in on the first warning signs of the next potential outbreak.

“As with a successful social media platform, BSVE thrives on information sharing,” said Mandy Wilson, a research scientist and lead developer at the Biocomplexity Institute. “The more disease specialists we have posting data, sharing their questions and concerns, the more powerful it becomes.”

The Biocomplexity Institute’s contributions to this platform, a pair of tools called My4Sight and EpiViewer, will add a number of convenient features designed to simplify the data-sharing process: the ability to post useful information and quickly compare it to similar content provided by other users.

Specifically, EpiViewer allows users to visualize and compare disease data contributed by experts from around the world. My4Sight helps analysts make the most of this information, allowing them to crowd-source relevant disease forecast data and highlight reports provided by users who have made accurate predictions in the past.

Scaling up this technology so it’s usable across every federal agency is no small task. The development process, slated for completion in September 2017, is providing a number of Virginia Tech graduate students with hands-on experience in the public health arena.

“I’ve gone from a behind-the-scenes programmer to an active consultant, working with decision-makers to see how we can deliver a final product the disease control community will be excited to use,” said Swapna Thorve, a graduate research assistant in NDSSL and master’s student in Virginia Tech’s Department of Computer Science within the College of Engineering. “I’m proud to be part of this team, not just for the experience, but the real benefits I know this system can help deliver to communities threatened by disease.”

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