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March 03, 2023

Φ-lab and UNICEF joint dengue fever research receives further award

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A project carried out by Φ-lab in conjunction with UNICEF has been selected as one of the UN agency’s top research initiatives of 2022. The success of the project, which developed an Artificial Intelligence (AI) solution for quantifying dengue fever outbreaks, has led to its operationalisation phase receiving significant funding from the Wellcome Trust.

Dengue fever is a major public health issue in the world’s tropical and sub-tropical regions, with the disease registered as endemic in more than 100 countries according to the World Health Organisation. Forecasting outbreaks has traditionally been particularly challenging due to the complex nature of how dengue spreads, but pioneering research by Φ-lab in conjunction with UNICEF has shown that modelling from Earth observation data can successfully predict instances of the disease one month in advance.

The climate-based ensemble model uses multiple Machine Learning approaches to take account of geographical variations in dengue incidence and proved to be more accurate than previous predictive techniques when piloted in Brazil and Peru.

The importance of the research was initially recognised by UNESCO in its 2021 Global Top 100 list of projects solving problems related to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The possibility of further acclaim followed last year, when the project was put forward for the Best of UNICEF Research 2022 competition. This annual challenge seeks to promote research best practices and to award activities with a high potential for impact on policies and programmes that benefit children. Submissions are assessed on the basis of a number of criteria, including originality, relevance, methodology and local engagement.

As a result of the peer review and panel evaluation, Φ-lab’s research was short-listed as one of the three projects in the critical ‘Every child survives’ goal area. In fact, the project was given pride of place in the enticing opening sentence of the UNICEF report on the finalists: “Imagine creating a machine learning model that uses data about rainfall to forecast disease outbreaks.” The report goes on to explain that the 12 selected projects all deliver results for children by informing decision-making, shaping policy and raising public awareness, showing “not only the power of innovation in the face of emergency and crisis, but also the virtues of agility, endurance and scalability.”

Results from the research showing the state-by-state correlation between dengue incidence rate, maximum temperature and humidity in Brazil

The dengue project was then showcased at a UNICEF award ceremony. In a video played to the online audience, Hanoch Barlevi, UNICEF Disaster Risk Reduction/Climate Changes Assessment Specialist emphasised the benefits of the endeavour: “In tandem with the [UNICEF] Innovation Team, and partners like the European Space Agency, we have explored different approaches and techniques and technologies to strengthen health systems, making them better prepared, which will boost estimates of the current and future projection of dengue distribution for children today and tomorrow.”

The foundation laid by Φ-lab’s research has now attracted funding for the crucial next phase, developing an end-user application for predicting dengue outbreaks. The Wellcome Trust has granted over €600 000 to the University of California San Diego, New Light Technologies Inc. and UNICEF to produce the tool, initially for Latin America and then potentially expanded to other regions and diseases.

“We’re truly delighted to receive such recognition for our work,” commented Rochelle Schneider dos Santos, the Φ-lab researcher who led the project. “We hope and believe the dengue research will be a game changer for outbreak modelling, and the multi-disciplinary nature of the awards is particularly rewarding – sustainable development from UNESCO and children’s health from UNICEF. In addition, the grant from Wellcome is another example of how Φ-lab’s AI-powered research can pave the way to third-party funding and customer-focused products and services.”

To know more: UNICEFUNESCO, Wellcome Trust

Competition details and extracts courtesy of Best of UNICEF Research 2022, UNICEF Innocenti – Global Office of Research and Foresight, Florence, 2022