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Can an Algorithm Predict the Pandemic’s Next Moves?


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Using a crystal ball to try to see the future.

An international team of scientists has developed a model that could predict coronavirus outbreaks about two weeks before they occur.

Credit: Getty

Judging when to tighten, or loosen, the local economy has become the world's most consequential guessing game, and each policymaker has his or her own instincts and benchmarks. The point when hospitals reach 70 percent capacity is a red flag, for instance; so are upticks in coronavirus case counts and deaths.

But as the governors of states like Florida, California and Texas have learned in recent days, such benchmarks make for a poor alarm system. Once the coronavirus finds an opening in the population, it gains a two-week head start on health officials, circulating and multiplying swiftly before its re-emergence becomes apparent at hospitals, testing clinics and elsewhere.

Now, an international team of scientists has developed a model — or, at minimum, the template for a model — that could predict outbreaks about two weeks before they occur, in time to put effective containment measures in place.

In a paper posted on Thursday on arXiv.org, the team, led by Mauricio Santillana and Nicole Kogan of Harvard, presented an algorithm that registered danger 14 days or more before case counts begin to increase. The system uses real-time monitoring of Twitter, Google searches and mobility data from smartphones, among other data streams.

 

From The New York Times
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