Civil servants develop algorithm capable of predicting flu outbreaks

By on 18/07/2016
Defence Science and Technology (DST) Group have developed an algorithm that can predict flu outbreaks up to eight weeks in advance

Civil servants in Australia have developed a new tool which can predict flu outbreaks up to eight weeks in advance.

The algorithm, which was developed by officials at the Defence Science and Technology (DST) Group – an agency within the Department of Defence to detect bio-terrorism, is now being used by the Victorian Health Department as an influenza forecasting tool.  

The system is also being experimentally deployed across two states: New South Wales in southeastern Australia and Queensland in the northeast, and Tony Lau, who is part of the team who developed the algorithm, said the aim is to get it operational across most of Australia in time for next year’s flu forecasting season.

The algorithm known as EpiDefend is a combination of fusion of data from lab-confirmed influenza cases, anonymised GP reports and other environmental data such as humidity were tested.

This strengthens the reliability, accuracy and timeliness of detecting an outbreak from naturally occurring influenza-like illness (ILI) and maliciously released biological agents.

Lau said: “Our team was the first in the world to apply particle filters to disease forecasting, and the combination of techniques used in EpiDefend makes it a world-leading innovation,” says Lau.

“Given the exponential increase in electronic data collection and our algorithm’s ability to dig into these very rich streams of information, the approach has the potential to provide a breakthrough in disease forecasting.

”Our team’s goal is dual-purpose, we want to fulfil our defence charter, protecting our forces against intentionally released biological agents, but disease forecasting will also support the national security and public health areas.”

Lau added: “It’s exciting and busy times, and we are ready to contribute to the development of a national and global bio-surveillance system.

“Until now we’ve been focused on developing in-house skills in the detection and forecasting of naturally occurring diseases as well as agents that might be used in bioterrorism.

“We have successfully established significant expertise, using state-of-the-art particle filter techniques and Bayesian networks, to deal with real-world uncertainties in disease forecasting.”

DST Group is the Australian government’s lead agency responsible for applying science and technology to safeguard Australia and its national interests.

Headed by the chief defence scientist, it has an annual budget of around $408 million and employs about 2300 staff, predominantly scientists, engineers, IT specialists and technicians.

About Winnie Agbonlahor

Winnie is news editor of Global Government Forum. She previously reported for Civil Service World - the trade magazine for senior UK government officials. Originally from Germany, Winnie first came to the UK in 2006 to study a BA in Journalism & Russian at the University of Sheffield. She is bilingual in English and German, and, after spending an academic year abroad in Russia and reporting for the Moscow Times, Winnie also speaks Russian fluently.

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