Understanding what it takes to detect and respond to outbreaks is a key area of focus for the Outbreak Observatory. Public health professionals know that you need data—often from multiple sources--in order to know that an outbreak is occurring and to develop strategies to control it.  As we have written before, outbreak response efforts can be limited by having inadequate data to characterize the events that have already occurred. For example, in the current Ebola outbreak in the DRC, there are a number of questions for which data may not yet be available. But while surveillance for outbreaks has typically focused on acquiring information to understand what is currently happening, there is also a need to understand what could happen in the future-e.g., how many cases do we expect to see in the next month? Will there be enough resources to respond?  Efforts to collect and analyze data and information with the intent to better understand how events could unfold in the future is often characterized as outbreak prediction or forecasting. There has been some recent national attention to the need to improve availability of information to support outbreak prediction or forecasting, but this is an emerging field and new models are still being developed and tested. Outbreak Observatory believes it is not only critical to improve the availability of information for outbreak detection and response, but also for prediction/forecasting, and we would like to offer support to those who are working to advance such efforts.

That is why we are excited to highlight a project being launched by our colleagues at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, Tara Kirk Sell and Crystal Watson: Collective Intelligence for Disease Prediction. This effort, announced in collaboration with ProMED-mail, is designed to use collective intelligence to provide health security leaders with crowdsourced forecast data to inform their decision making about infectious disease preparedness and response policies and interventions.

What is collective intelligence? Simply put, it’s judgements solicited from volunteers—including public health experts—about disease outbreaks that are currently occurring and how they are likely to progress. The platform asks people who sign up to give their best predictions to answer specific questions about current outbreaks to help forecast where these events may be headed.  Anyone can join the prediction platform. But by working through professional networks like ProMED and the Outbreak Observatory, the prediction platform team hopes to encourage individuals with expertise in infectious diseases, epidemiology and outbreak response to participate.

The project runs at least through the end of 2019, and new questions will be added periodically. Though the desire to help improve our understanding of how current outbreaks are likely to progress may be motivation enough, there’s an additional reason to participate: the project team will be awarding prizes to the best forecasters. We encourage all Outbreak Thursday readers interested in participating in this project to sign up using the following link: https://prod.lumenogic.com/jhchs/auth/register.html

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Outbreak Observatory aims to collect information on challenges and solutions associated with outbreak response and share it broadly to allow others to learn from these experiences in order to improve global outbreak response capabilities.