The concept of a weather forecast doesn’t make you think twice, but a flu forecast? Now that might cause you to do a double-take.

While the science of weather forecasting has been accepted as a standard feature of smartphones and newscasts for years, flu forecasting — or, for that matter, disease forecasts in general — haven’t been as easily accessible. That, however, is a situation researchers at the Biocomplexity Institute of Virginia Tech plan to change.

The key to this transformation will be the institute's disease surveillance platform EpiCaster, a tool that allows scientists to forecast how a specific region will be affected by the flu weeks before an outbreak occurs. The Biocomplexity Institute now has a strategic partnership with AccuWeather that will place the institute’s cutting-edge science on the AccuWeather platform.

The partnership could dramatically change the level of flu knowledge and awareness for people across the U.S.

“We laud AccuWeather for utilizing its academic background to be forward-thinking and recognize an opportunity to adapt innovative research techniques into an information platform that people already use to help guide their day-to-day decision-making," said Bryan Lewis, a research associate professor and the team’s resident expert in infectious disease modeling. "This strategic partnership ensures our research will have an even greater impact in reducing the economic and public health burdens of influenza.”

This collaboration will allow AccuWeather to leverage data derived from years of research and refinement of the institute’s EpiCaster disease surveillance platform to help warn people weeks ahead of a potential flu outbreak. It’s a partnership that will join the extensive reach of the AccuWeather platform with the large-scale analytics and epidemiological models of the Biocomplexity Institute.

“This innovative, strategic partnership between AccuWeather and Virginia Tech enables brands to reach customers with relevant messages to offer contextually relevant information to help inform their decisions before the flu’s impact begins,” said Eric Danetz, global chief revenue officer of AccuWeather. “Using the most accurate flu predictions to deliver helpful, targeted information further enhances AccuWeather’s unique capability to help brands deliver the optimal message that is timely, targeted, and more likely to be positively received.”

Researchers originally developed EpiCaster on the Biocomplexity Institute’s high-performance computing clusters to help guide the U.S. government’s response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. The disease surveillance and forecast platform uses a rigorously tested methodology documented in several articles published by peer-reviewed journals, including Epidemics and BMC Infectious Diseases.

“The flu predictions we make for AccuWeather are generated from EpiCaster, a causality-driven epidemic forecasting pipeline,” said Jiangzhuo Chen, the research associate professor at the institute who built EpiCaster. “It is unique in the sense that it integrates big-data analytics, causal modeling, and machine learning, giving the public deep insight into the five W's of flu season — where, when, what, who, and why — as well as how they should react to protect themselves and their families.”

“U.S., state, and local governments currently use this sophisticated disease surveillance system, which utilizes large data collections from a wide array of sources, including the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control, and social media,” said Madhav Marathe, professor of computer science and a lab director of the Biocomplexity Institute. “It allows us to provide highly reliable predictions on how epidemics are likely to evolve and spread.”

“This collaboration between AccuWeather and institute researchers will allow our team to map locations where flu outbreaks are on the rise,” said Scott Sameroff, director of business development for digital at AccuWeather. “We will now be able to benefit AccuWeather app users and helping protect individuals and families during seasonal flu outbreaks.”

According to the CDC, it takes about two weeks after a flu vaccination for it to protect against the virus. The agency recommends that everyone 6 months of age and older get vaccinated as a preventative measure. Click here for other recommendations from the CDC to prevent infection.

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