Nebraska U team among finalists for Pandemic Response Challenge

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Nebraska U team among finalists for Pandemic Response Challenge

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A team of researchers from three University of Nebraska institutions, including the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, is among the finalists in a global competition to develop an artificial intelligence-driven model that could advise policymakers on how best to handle the COVID-19 pandemic.

And with one of the most accurate models in the early phase of the competition, the Nebraska team is well within range of the $500,000 top prize.

Fadi Alsaleem

In December, after Phase 1 of the $500K Pandemic Response Challenge coordinated by XPRIZE, which designs and operates incentive competitions to solve the world’s grand challenges, the Nebraska team was among 48 teams from 17 countries chosen to advance to the final phase.

Fadi Alsaleem, assistant professor of architectural engineering at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and expert in big data analysis, is joined on the team by Alison Freifeld, professor of internal medicine at University of Nebraska Medical Center and infectious disease expert; Basheer Qolomany, assistant professor of computer science at University of Nebraska-Kearney and expert in cyber systems; Dan Piatkowski, assistant professor of community and regional planning at the university; and three of Alsaleem’s graduate students: Ali Hazem Al Ramini, Mohammad Ali Takallou and Mostafa Rafaie, who is now employed as a data scientist at Mutual of Omaha.

Since the initial approval of coronavirus vaccines in December 2020, the pandemic has raged on, with more than 25 million additional people being diagnosed with COVID-19. The Pandemic Response Challenge aims to harness the power of data and artificial intelligence in equipping policymakers, health officials and business leaders with insights and guidance necessary to implement public safety measures and safely deliver the vaccine, maximizing their ability to keep local economies open while minimizing potential virus breakouts.

“The finalists in the Pandemic Response Challenge have demonstrated incredible innovation in their efforts to help the world emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Brian Humphries, chief executive officer of Cognizant, a partner and sponsor of the challenge. “Advancements these teams are making can have far-reaching implications — empowering policymakers and business leaders globally with data-driven tools, informing countries’ decisions about their re-opening strategies, and proving the value of AI and collaboration in addressing future humanitarian crises.”

In Phase 1 of the competition, teams were tasked with analyzing local COVID-19 data, intervention strategies and mitigation policies to develop and test a prediction model that could anticipate global infection spikes.

The Nebraska team formed in the spring of 2020, while working on a COVID-19 modeling project that used Kinsa Bluetooth-wired thermometers to gather fever data from households in various communities across the state. When it learned of the XPRIZE competition in November, the team had to work quickly to enter.

Finalists had until Feb. 3 to complete Phase 2, which involves developing a prescriptor model, or action plan. These models will be evaluated against key benchmarks, including minimizing the number of cases and the cost of intervention plans.

Instead of focusing solely on data gathered in Nebraska, the team was required to study the results of responses from around the world when developing its model.

The final results of the challenge are expected to be released Feb. 26.

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