Biothreats, bioterrorism, detection, subway attacks, warnings, alerts, Hidden Signals Challenge | Homeland Security Newswire

BiothreatsAccelerating data solutions to identify emerging biothreats

Published 8 June 2018

Biothreats — harmful pathogens that are either naturally or deliberately released — pose a risk to national security and public health. Biothreats are hard to immediately identify, but with new technologies and data sources, such as the wealth of open data generated by “smarter” cities, emergency managers may be able to detect and respond to an emerging problem more quickly.

Biothreats — harmful pathogens that are either naturally or deliberately released — pose a risk to national security and public health, and identifying new detection methods is a top priority for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T). Biothreats are hard to immediately identify, but with new technologies and data sources, such as the wealth of open data generated by “smarter” cities, emergency managers may be able to detect and respond to an emerging problem more quickly.

DHS S&T knew it would need to go beyond its four walls to explore this opportunity space. In October, S&T collaborated with the Office of Health Affairs National Biosurveillance Integration Center (NBIC) to launch the Hidden Signals Challenge. The $300,000 prize competition called for the design of an early warning system to keep our communities safe by using existing data sources to uncover emerging biothreats.

Moving from concepts to system designs
S&T says that the Challenge attracted concepts from dozens of data science experts across the United States. A 17-person review panel of experts in data, health, and public safety scored the submissions before passing them on to the panel of judges with expertise in bioinformatics, biological defense, epidemiology, and emergency management.  

In February 2018, DHS announced the five finalist teams, whose concepts employ a variety of data sources, machine learning approaches, and analytical models. Each finalist was awarded $20,000 as seed funding to enter the second stage of the Challenge, an eight-week Virtual Accelerator, where they further developed their concepts into detailed system designs.  

The finalists each had different strengths and areas of expertise, so the Virtual Accelerator was designed to expose them to new perspectives that would shore up any knowledge gaps and inform their system designs. The program was split into four modules, each consisting of virtual guest speakers, reading lists, and guided field exercises on topics ranging from data science to design thinking and city operations.