IBM unleashes software tool for thwarting pandemics

IBM researchers on Friday released free software to help public health officials prevent pandemics of diseases such as bird flu or dengue fever.

IBM’s Spatiotemporal Epidemiological Modeler (STEM) is a tool for public health scientists worldwide to forecast how diseases will spread in the same way meteorologists predict the paths of storms, according to researchers.

"STEM will allow public health officials to model the spread of a disease much like modeling a storm or hurricane," said IBM Healthcare and Life Sciences engineer Joseph Jasinski.

"It allows us to produce a public health ‘weather map’ for the spread of a particular disease. Until now, it has been difficult to simulate health crisis scenarios on a global scale. STEM gives us the power to do that."

IBM’s open-source software is available to scientists, researchers and public health protectors worldwide through the nonprofit Eclipse Foundation, according to lead STEM researcher Dan Ford.

"We noticed several years ago that the people who would supposedly help us react to avian influenza were a very divided lot; isolated in countries and focused on things related to their funding sources," Ford told AFP.

"With STEM we created a tool that can act as a unifying platform to form a community that, hopefully, is global."

The software is a refinement of software IBM released three years ago.

The program provides base information, such as road maps and macro-economics, and allows public health officials to "tweak" it with local details such as air traffic patterns.

Information available from anywhere in the world can be added to customize programs that forecast how particular diseases will likely spread in local regions, Ford said.

"You might have someone that is an expert in the mathematics of disease propagation and another person with useful data like migratory bird paths," Ford said. "This tool lets them put their expertise together and share it."

"We now have the ability to compose disease models from bits and pieces that other researchers create."

The software is simple enough to run on a typical laptop computer, and the open-source format means that it is public property and can be improved on by anyone with the skill.

"It is designed to be available to everybody," Ford said. "You don’t need a supercomputer for it. I’m sure IBM would like to sell you one, but you don’t need it in this case."

STEM comes with basic disease models and the geographic layout of "pretty much of the entire world" and can link to display results on Internet giant Google’s mapping program, according to IBM.

Officials in a health crisis for example could create models to assess how shutting down plane or train travel might slow the spread of contagious disease, Ford said.

STEM is compatible with IBM software that lets it communicate real-time with hospitals, clinics or labs to continuously update health data.

"It is still in the early days, so there is a lot of work to do on the project," said Ford, who works at IBM’s Almaden Research Lab in California.

"This isn’t going to predict the future. What it will do is give insight into where choke points might be and the magnitude of decisions. To a researcher, this is a big boost."

Ford envisions STEM eventually providing public health officials with "turnkey" tools for handling potential pandemic scenarios.

IBM said researchers from its Israel, China and United States labs have been working on the project for nearly three years.

"We are thrilled to have IBM’s STEM technology contributed to Eclipse and look forward to fostering more innovation on this important technology," said foundation executive director Mike Milinkovich.

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IBM unleashes software tool for thwarting pandemics