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A Hackathon To Stop Ebola? Not As Dumb As It Sounds

Before dismissing it as Silicon Valley hubris, consider that 80 experts in computer science, epidemiology, and physics took part.

A Hackathon To Stop Ebola? Not As Dumb As It Sounds
[Laptop: Flickr user hackNY.org, Petri Art: Flickr user gwire]

On paper the steps to fighting an Ebola epidemic look simple: Identify, isolate, and eradicate. Working backwards, the last of the steps, eradication, is usually handled by medical therapies, the body’s natural immune defenses, or, tragically in over 50% of ebola cases, death of the host. Before one can arrive at the eradication of the disease, those infected must be isolated so they don’t continue the disease’s spread by infecting others. But in order to isolate those infected, the governments, NGOs, and public health services battling the epidemic must have the data to identify where the disease is at present but also the tools to predict where it’s likely to spread and allocate resources there.

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It’s this identification and resource allocation stage that is the reason the Network Dynamics and Simulation Science Laboratory (NDSSL), part of the Virginia Bio-Informatics Institute at Virginia Tech, decided to hold a 10-day Computing for Ebola Challenge earlier this month. The goal of the hackathon? None other than the creation of an app that helps fight one of the world’s deadliest diseases.

“We have been involved in modeling the Ebola outbreak for the Department of Defense since early July,” says Caitlin Rivers, a PhD student in computational epidemiology at NDSSL and one of the organizers of the hackathon. “Even so, we felt like we wanted to do more.”

You might scoff, and even dismiss a hackathon to fight Ebola as Silicon Valley hubris. But what the NDSSL’s hackathon showed is that there are a lot of smart hackers, scientists, and public health experts who are concerned about the epidemic. And if you can bring those groups together to share data and build better systems to analyze it, an app could make a life-saving difference in the world of deadly biological diseases.

“Programming and epidemiology-biology are totally different skill sets, and there aren’t many people fluent in both,” says Rivers. “There are so many problems that could use skills in that intersection, and I think that’s what we were really aiming for with this hackathon.”

The result was a gathering of 80 cross-disciplinary experts in fields such as computer science, epidemiology, web development, and physics taking part in the hackathon. “We were looking for individuals who were interested in contributing their time to this important societal problem,” says NDSSL director Madhav Marathe. “We felt that the range of problems was such that individuals with basic skills could contribute meaningfully to this challenge.”

By the end of the 10-day Computing for Ebola Challenge hackathon dozens of projects had been explored with several student hackers planning to release a finished product in the next few weeks. Given that an Ebola outbreak is a massive public health issue–the key word being public–another theme of the Computing for Ebola Challenge was to not strictly limit the hackathon to creating tools only big data experts or brainy scientists could understand. With the right software, the teams at NDSSL believe, everyone could be given the tools to help fight Ebola in some small way.

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“It is impossible to imagine in today’s connected world how one would be an effective epidemiologist without using innovative computer-based tools,” says Marathe. “From simple problems that takes data in paper or other non-electronic form and converting it into machine readable form, to other sophisticated tasks such as developing data management tools, user interfaces, and web-apps for collecting and delivering information to analysts, and analytical tools for inferring patterns in data collected serve as examples of tasks computational scientists can undertake.”

One project matches donors with reputable organizations in need, for example an NGO that provides protective equipment to health care workers in Sierra Leone. The website also matches volunteers with skills needed in different areas. “So as an epidemiologist I can find an organization recruiting people with my skills,” says Rivers.

The NDSSL has also created an Ebola resource page that contains details on their work as well as all the data sets that they have released. That way, Marathe says, anyone who wants to try their hand at creating apps to help fight the epidemic can get involved.

But as Rivers stresses, “The people on the ground in West Africa working to stop the epidemic at its source are the real heroes. We’re just trying to do what we can to support them.”

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