Logo: University of Southern California

Going Viral

USC team recognized for predicting disease outbreaks.
By: Sam Corey
June 18, 2015 —
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Ajitesh Srivastava stands between Col. Matthew Hepburn and Dr. Arati Prabhakar with his award

A team of University of Southern California engineers placed in the top 2 percent among 466 teams in the 2015 DARPA CHICKV Challenge, earning national recognition and an invitation to meet with government experts in disease prediction at the DARPA conference center in Arlington, Virginia.

The team, comprised of USC Viterbi Ph.D.s Charalampos Chelmis and Anand Panangadan, and USC Viterbi CS Ph.D. candidate Ajitesh Srivastava, was recognized for producing a prediction model that uses information sharing to accurately deliver a six-month forecast of the spread of the Chikungunya virus in 55 different countries and territories in North, Central and South America and the Caribbean.

“It’s always a big boost to see your research ideas being applied to the real world and used in different practices,” Chelmis said.

As of May 2015, there have been more than 33,000 confirmed cases and close to 1.4 million suspected cases of the Chikungunya virus in the Western Hemisphere since its first appearance in December 2013, according to DARPA. Spread by mosquitos, Chikungunya is rarely fatal but can cause joint and muscle pain, fever, nausea, fatigue and rash.

DARPA is an agency of the U.S. Department of Defense responsible for developing emerging technologies for the military. It initiated the CHICKV Challenge in August 2014 to foster the formation of teams drawn from multiple disciplines to create models that could accurately predict the spread of Chikungunya.

Panangadan said the USC Viterbi team used concepts of information sharing on the Internet, the exchange of data between people, and applied it to predicting the spread of viruses.

Teammate Srivastava, who won an award for best presentation in the competition, compares predicting virus outbreaks to a YouTube video shared on Facebook, rapidly across the Internet.

“Information sharing on the Internet is based off of information sharing on epidemics, so we took that and applied it to predicting outbreaks,” Srivastava said. “It’s a similar method to the process of assessing how a meme or a video goes viral.”

Chelmis, Srivastava and Panangadan, along with the other winners, shared their work with members of the Center of Disease Control and the U.S. Department of Health to raise awareness in epidemic prediction and to foster potential future collaborations between the teams and the experts.

“Our goal was to make our model interactive so a person who doesn’t have a background in math or epidemiology can use it and understand its findings,” Srivastava said. “When you wake up and there’s a zombie apocalypse, Rick Grimes won’t be able to save you, but our project can help people learn how it’s spreading.”