Jun. 18 2014

Jeffrey Shaman, PhD, assistant professor of Environmental Health Sciences, and his team are the first-place winners of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Predict the Influenza Season Challenge.”

Shaman and colleagues developed a scientifically validated system for predicting seasonal peaks of influenza in cities across the United States. During the flu season, weekly forecasts are posted at cpid.iri.columbia.edu.


Jeffrey Shaman and Wan Yang

“It’s a great recognition for my team,” Shaman told the CDC. “I hope it brings a little more attention to the idea of forecasting infectious diseases. I think there are a number of government agencies that are beginning to recognize the value of disease forecast and understand this is a research area in which we should invest.”

Contest entrants were asked to forecast the timing, peak, and intensity of the 2013-14 flu season using digital data. Eleven teams completed the challenge using a variety of data sources. Three judges reviewed the submissions.

Dr. Shaman’s flu system uses near real-time data from Google Flu Trends, which makes estimates of outbreaks based on the number of flu-related search queries, and weekly region-specific reports on influenza-like illness (ILI) from the CDC on verified cases of flu. The data is fed into a mathematical model, which is then calibrated to produce a more accurate and reliable forecast. 

The CDC explains the value of Shaman’s forecasting model:

Shaman’s team presented their forecasts in a similar manner to how a meteorologist provides the chance of rain for each day’s weather forecast. This approach helped communicate flu forecasting in a way that was meaningful to both public health officials and the public.

While acknowledging that much work remains to improve the science of flu forecasting, Shaman views the progress that has been made in weather forecasting as proof of the potential for forecasting infectious diseases. “Forecasts were in existence for weather almost 60 years ago and they weren’t very good,” Shaman said, “but steadily over the past 60 years weather forecasters have improved the skill level, accuracy and reliability of their predictions. If we choose as a nation and as a broader scientific community to invest in infectious disease prediction … it’s going to get better.”

The CDC will continue to explore the possibilities of flu forecasting. They write, “the competition helped improve the science of flu forecasting” and that they hope to continue working with contest participants to “discuss forecasting approaches, data sources and lessons learned.”

First place recognition and a prize of $75,000 went to Dr. Jeffrey Shaman and his team, including Wan Yang, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher in Environmental Health Sciences; Alicia Karspeck, PhD, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research; and Marc Lipsitch, DPhil, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Funding for the flu forecasting research was provided by a joint program of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) and the National Science Foundation to support research at the interface of the biological and mathematical sciences; the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority of the Department of Health and Human Services; and the Models of Infectious Disease Agent Study (MIDAS) program of the NIGMS.

Read more on the CDC website

About Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health

Founded in 1922, Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health pursues an agenda of research, education, and service to address the critical and complex public health issues affecting New Yorkers, the nation and the world. The Mailman School is the third largest recipient of NIH grants among schools of public health. Its over 450 multi-disciplinary faculty members work in more than 100 countries around the world, addressing such issues aspreventing infectious and chronic diseases, environmental health, maternal and child health, health policy, climate change & health, and public health preparedness. It is a leader in public health education with over 1,300 graduate students from more than 40 nations pursuing avariety of master’s and doctoral degree programs. The Mailman School is also home to numerous world-renowned research centers including ICAP (formerly the International Center for AIDS Care and Treatment Programs) and the Center for Infection and Immunity. For more information, please visit www.mailman.columbia.edu.