Real-Time Forecasting of the COVID-19 Outbreak in Chinese Provinces: Machine Learning Approach Using Novel Digital Data and Estimates From Mechanistic Models

Poirier, C., Liu, D., Clemente, L., Ding, X., Chinazzi, M., Davis, J.T., Vespignani, A., & Santillana, M. (2020). Journal of Medical Internet Research, 22(8), e20285


Background: The inherent difficulty of identifying and monitoring emerging outbreaks caused by novel pathogens can lead to their rapid spread; and if left unchecked, they may become major public health threats to the planet. The ongoing coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, which has infected over 2,300,000 individuals and caused over 150,000 deaths, is an example of one of these catastrophic events.

Objective: We present a timely and novel methodology that combines disease estimates from mechanistic models and digital traces, via interpretable machine learning methodologies, to reliably forecast COVID-19 activity in Chinese provinces in real time.

Methods: Our method uses the following as inputs: (a) official health reports, (b) COVID-19–related internet search activity, (c) news media activity, and (d) daily forecasts of COVID-19 activity from a metapopulation mechanistic model. Our machine learning methodology uses a clustering technique that enables the exploitation of geospatial synchronicities of COVID-19 activity across Chinese provinces and a data augmentation technique to deal with the small number of historical disease observations characteristic of emerging outbreaks.

Results: Our model is able to produce stable and accurate forecasts 2 days ahead of the current time and outperforms a collection of baseline models in 27 out of 32 Chinese provinces.

Conclusions: Our methodology could be easily extended to other geographies currently affected by COVID-19 to aid decision makers with monitoring and possibly prevention.

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Recommended citation: Poirier, C., Liu, D., Clemente, L., Ding, X., Chinazzi, M., Davis, J.T., Vespignani, A., & Santillana, M. (2020). "Real-time forecasting of the COVID-19 outbreak in Chinese provinces: machine learning approach using novel digital data and estimates from mechanistic models". Journal of Medical Internet Research, 22(8), e20285.