The Now Trending Challenge is a developer challenge hosted by the Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR).

It calls on developers to use open source Twitter data to create a web-based application that will automatically deliver a list of the top five trending illnesses from a specified geographic area in a 24-hour period.

Data will be sent directly to state and local public health officials to use in a variety of ways.

The ASPR has an internal team of data miners called the Fusion Cell, which hosts Fusion Forums regularly which bring together public health officials from around the country to discuss ways to use technology and big data to improve public health surveillance.

According to a post on the ASPR’s blog, at the most recent Fusion Forum, state and local agencies asked the Fusion Cell team to help them build a web app that takes advantage of Twitter to detect disease in real-time. After a thorough review of the analytical protocols used by public health agencies, NGOs, and private industries, the Fusion Cell team was unable to find anything that delivered such information so they decided to launch the Now Trending Challenge to incentivize the developer community to build it for them.

It was a bit surprising to read that there are no existing protocols that have addressed this issue before. This speaks to the tremendous amount of untapped innovative potential that tools like Twitter offer public health officials and developers alike.

To win, the web-based app must be innovative, scalable, dynamic, user-friendly, and must be able to send data to state and local health agencies. Winners will be awarded $21,000 plus an additional $1,000 for travel to the event announcing the winner.

Additionally, the developers will be invited to present their app at an upcoming Fusion Forum.

This is the second developer challenge hosted by the ASPR, the first being the Facebook Lifeline App Challenge, which called upon developers to create Facebook apps that could enhance individual community resilience by establishing social connections in advance of an emergency.

The winners were a pair of recent Brown University graduates.

You can follow news about the Now Trending Challenge on Twitter with the hashtag #nowtrending2012.