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Mission Log

6.12.20

Don Burke: Mapping a Pandemic

What is it like to model a pandemic, in the middle of a pandemic?

It has been three months of impossible decisions. How often should you go to the grocery store? When is it safe to see your family? How can your business support both employees and neighbors alike? If you ask former Dean of Public Health Don Burke, all of these questions can be answered with something you’ve been implicitly doing since childhood. For Burke along with his company Epistemix, the solution lies in making a model. And if your company has pioneered software that traces infectious diseases, it turns out that you will have a lot to say on the matter. 

Dr. Burke is what can be referred to as a modeling advocate. Rather than tout his own skills as an expert, Burke firmly believes that everyone is a modeler. When people make choices, they evaluate potential outcomes through implicit mental models. However, your own internal mental model relies on a specific set of assumptions that are hidden from your collaborators – and even yourself!

Catch Dr. Don Burke on June 17th from 4-5PM 

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It's a Conversation

For Burke, creating a model is a social transaction, a means to share your preconceptions with those making the same decision. When it comes to something as complex a pandemic, models streamline what would become data overload. “So many of the problems that deal with in population health are complicated, dynamic interactions of diseases and policies and attitudes,” explains Burke. “All of these move on their own accord and interact with each other.”

So Burke along with computer scientist John Grefenstette created FRED, an agent-based modeling platform that recreates every person as a unique actor. With distinct motivations and capacity for decisions, every person is mapped based on their demographics and daily behaviors. You can play out hundreds of different hypotheticals such as school closures, work sick days, vaccine deployment, or contact tracing strategies, and then observe how each community reacts. As Epistemix CEO John Cordier explains, “Austin is different than Dallas which is different than El Paso. Each of these places, whether they’re urban, suburban, or rural, they have different places and frequencies where people gather.” 

The Pivotal Moment

FRED has been used to model measles, alcohol abuse, and opioid addiction, and now is at the epicenter of COVID-19 modeling. Epistemix is working with health departments, hospitals, and insurers across the country to think through reopening strategies, in addition to predicting shifting healthcare needs. The business is coming of age at a time when their product could mean life or death, and that pressure is equal parts overwhelming and exhilarating. “It’s a very important moment in history to enable policy makers to make decisions, and there’s this unprecedented urgency to provide a solution,” add Cordier.  

If you have 1,000 more questions for Dr. Burke, please join us on June 17th at 4pm to hear him in person. He’ll take us on a journey from when he first predicted the threat of coronaviruses (in 1997!) to the most up to date analysis on COVID-19. Register online at liftoffpgh.org/liftoffinmotion.   

Liftoff PGH Team