Envisioning Epiverse: A Collective Win for Global Health Security

Students from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine
Students from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. Photo by London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

Imagine the transformative impact of consistent, replicable, and trustworthy data-driven insights, analysis, and modeling – accessible from anywhere and able to be applied in real-time to combat pandemics and other public health threats. Consider the potential innovation of an effort powered by a global, interdisciplinary community of academics, medical professionals, and technologists to create and maintain open-source, free-to-use data analysis tools.

This is the vision of Epiverse, a new pandemic response consortium led by data.org. The launch of our work with the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) brings us one step closer to making this vision a reality.

The Urgency of Now: Why the World Needs Epiverse

COVID-19 has exposed major gaps in our collective ability to aggregate and use data to understand the impacts of a pandemic and draw insights that can better inform policy choices. For much of the crisis, policymakers have been operating largely in the dark, with limited information to guide response.

For instance, standard disease surveillance data is not easily compatible with genomic data, behavioral surveys or non-traditional data sources like financial transaction and mobility data. Efforts to draw insights from these disparate data sources require significant time and expertise, both in short supply during outbreaks. A mash-up of efforts, developed using non-standard, undocumented, poorly supported and maintained tools, left scientists with a series of temporary fixes to address a pandemic-sized challenge. These shortcomings were exacerbated by widespread inequality in data accessibility for low-to-middle income countries, deepening the global divide and making current methods even more ineffective.

When starting my role at data.org, this is the kind of problem I wanted to solve. As the head of Wellcome Trust’s data team, I had lived and breathed pandemic-related data and technology initiatives in 2020. Now, as Executive Director of data.org, I have new tools at my disposal and a bigger, global canvas.

One key lesson from my Wellcome days was the importance of cooperation across multiple funders to avoid duplicative investment efforts in technology. It is paramount that philanthropies like Wellcome, The Rockefeller Foundation, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as the big-government funding agencies, build infrastructure and tools in a coordinated, open, and sustainable way. We need to avoid every funder investing in their own rival closed-shop product only to be used by their own expert community. A second lesson is the need for collaboration across sectors, reaching out not just to philanthropy, academia, and biotech, but also to the tech, financial, and social-impact sectors.

Global co-creation with interdisciplinarity at its very core has become data.org’s motto.

Convening Global Talent and Local Insights to Develop Transformative Tools

With the support of The Rockefeller Foundation and Wellcome, Epiverse— is granting £3M to LSHTM to further their work on developing the epidemiological software tools of the future. Tools that are created and maintained by an engaged and empowered community of practice.

The global team of experts at LSHTM and the Medical Research Council Unit The Gambia (MRCG) at LSHTM, a leader in public health research in West Africa, offer an impressive combination of subject matter authority and expertise in both epidemiological modeling and open-source software creation and management, an exceptional combination that sets the team apart. Their advanced methods will become a cornerstone of Epiverse, laying the foundation for a strong, purpose-driven consortium that will bring some of the best and brightest minds from around the world into our collective to transform pandemic response.

By co-designing the tools with low-to-middle income countries and their local epidemiological centers of excellence, we seek to avoid the trap seen far too often with technology designed in San Francisco, Seattle or London, where the software is parachuted into Global South settings and ends up inefficient or ineffective. Epiverse is committed to incorporating a practice of strong community connections to inform epidemic modelers and drive engagement and support of the toolkit.  

The Result: Software Built by the Community, for the Community with Global Impact

Our shared commitment to community-building and co-creation sets our collective effort apart from other open-source data distribution efforts. As a global community, we believe that we can co-design integrated and community-driven software that grows with evolving needs to prepare for the next public health crisis – and broader societal challenges beyond that. This starts with a fully representative, interdisciplinary group from around the world that’s engaged and ready to develop, apply, and maintain this software. This is the power of joining Epiverse.