DHS Announces Finalists in Biothreat-Spotting Contest

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A department contest advanced five early warning systems designed to detect biological attacks.

The Homeland Security Department on Wednesday named five finalists in its competition to design an early warning system to keep biological attacks at bay.

Hosted by the DHS Science and Technology Directorate and National Biosurveillance Integration Center, the Hidden Signals Challenge calls on teams to design tools that use existing data sets to identify instances when dangerous pathogens like anthrax or tuberculosis are intentionally or accidentally released into the environment.

The agency said it hopes to use the program as a first step in developing a local- or national-level system for alerting city officials about biothreats in their communities.

The finalist projects include a tool that analyzes commuter data to pinpoint potential outbreaks, a system that alerts officials to spikes in emergency room wait times, and a machine learning tool that overlays emergency room complaints with social media data to spot rare disease cases.

“We were impressed with the diversity of concepts submitted to the challenge,” said William Bryan, the senior official performing the duties of undersecretary for science and technology at Homeland Security, in a statement. “The five finalists explore new ways we can uncover emerging biothreats and we are confident they’ll inform a system that could enable city-level operators to make critical decisions.”

Each finalist will receive $20,000 and advance to stage two of the competition, where they will compete for a $200,000 grand prize. The agency plans to announce the winner in the spring.