Epidemic tracking tool wins Open Science Prize

An online tool that helps researchers and public health workers track epidemics in real time has won the Open Science Prize.

Nextstrain.org is a prototype online platform that visualises viral genome data in real time to track the spread of global pathogens such as Zika and Ebola.

Viral genomes provide a hugely valuable insight into the spread of an infectious disease. But for this information to be useful during an epidemic, samples have to be collected, analysed and the results disseminated in near real time.

NextStrain can conduct statistical analyses in minutes, revealing when diseases were introduced into a population and their patterns of geographic spread. It can also help public health officials to connect individual cases to aid contact tracing.

The phylogenetic analyses are posted on the website as interactive and easy-to-understand visualisations.

The team behind nextstrain.org is led by Trevor Bedford from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle, and Richard Neher from Biozentrum at the University of Basel, Switzerland. They hope that the platform will be of use to researchers, public health officials and the public, providing a snapshot of an epidemic.

"Their prototype is an exemplar of open science, and will have a great impact on public health by tracking viral pathogens," said Robert Kiley, who leads Wellcome’s work on open research. "Overall, we received many fantastic submissions for the prize, tackling issues from air quality to genomics, and clinical trials to neuroscience.

"All entrants demonstrated what’s possible when data and code are made open for all. We hope that this competition has inspired and spurred on others to think about opening up data to create more innovation in this space."

The international competition is a collaboration between Wellcome and the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), with support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

The winning team was selected from six finalists. A public vote decided the final shortlist of three teams.

Find out more about the prize and all of the finalists on the Open Science Prize website.