Imagine this: A breaking news alert flashes across your phone screen, notifying you that a biothreat in the form of an infectious disease has been released into the local water supply. You experience a jolt of adrenaline as you set down your glass of water, steady your shaking hands, and begin to read, “Average household filters cannot eliminate this threat.”
Luckily, none of us have ever experienced this horrifying event because there is a team of scientists working for the federal government that are dedicated to ensuring that you never do.
In an effort to create an early warning system for developing biothreats, the Department of Homeland Security teamed up with the Science and Technology Directorate and the Office of Health Affairs National Biosurveillance Integration Center to host the Hidden Signals Challenge. The challenge aims to use private organizations to help create an early detection system to discover biothreats as they happen. And hopefully, before they spread.
On Feb. 14, five finalists were announced at the American Society for Microbiology’s 2018 ASM Biothreats meeting. Among the winners was Tacoma nonprofit Readiness Acceleration & Innovation Network. RAIN’s Commuter Pattern Analysis for Early Biothreat Detection system “cross-references de-identified traffic information with existing municipal health data and internet keyword searches.”
William N. Bryan, DHS senior official performing the duties of under secretary for science and technology discussed the competition in a statement. “We were impressed with the diversity of concepts submitted to the Challenge,” he said. “The five finalists explore new ways we can uncover emerging biothreats and we are confident they’ll inform a system that could enable city-level operators to make critical decisions.”
All five finalists won $20,000 and will move on to stage two of the competition, where they will continue designing their tools. The winner of the Hidden Signals Challenge will receive a $200,000 grand prize.