Right now, a start-up software company that spun out of the Graduate School of Public Health at the University of Pittsburgh is working with school districts and public health agencies to help make critical decisions about how to operate during the COVID-19 pandemic. The company has developed software to predict the progression of disease outbreaks and other viral phenomena.
Their immediate focus is on the pandemic, but the long-term potential expands beyond stopping the spread of microscopic contagions into helping policymakers solve societal challenges like a lack of affordable housing and the spread of poverty. Those problems, too, the founders say, have qualities of contagion.
For school districts and public health departments, the company’s work in this moment relies on selling a subscription service through which it can precisely model how many people within a school or district would likely get infected under all the different operating models leaders are considering. Those could include opening fully, going hybrid, giving sports teams permission to practice, applying mask-wearing procedures, and so on.
As the school year goes on and conditions in communities change (rates of infection rise or fall, for example, or restaurants open or shut down again), districts that subscribe to the service will be able to update the predictive outcomes of their decisions.
The company is called Epistemix, and it’s currently working with districts to model school opening decisions in Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Indiana, Oklahoma, Texas, and California. John Cordier (San Antonio ’14), who got double master’s degrees in business and public health after finishing the corps, is its CEO. Cordier co-founded the company with its chief technology officer, John Grefenstette, and the former dean of the university’s school of public health, Donald S. Burke.
Burke is an epidemiologist who has been at the leading edge of developing vaccines for epidemics like HIV/AIDS. He’s led efforts around the world on understanding infectious diseases like dengue. For a decade, he and members of the Epistemix team have been working to develop a modeling system to predict the progression of disease outbreak. It’s called FRED (Framework for Reconstructing Epidemiological Dynamics), also named for that Pittsburgh hero, Mr. (Fred) Rogers.
While the simulator was in development, one project its developers took on was modeling the tipping point for measles vaccination rates. Cordier said researchers were able to show that once the vaccination levels within a community dip below a certain threshold (around 92%), suddenly one case of measles can become an epidemic.
The utility of using predictive software during a pandemic is clear. But when you model an epidemic through a computer simulation, it turns out that’s a close analogue for other things that “go viral” and spread through human populations.
Cordier and Burke have been working with graduate students at the public health school in Pittsburgh to determine if there’s a way to use FRED to model what they call “the epidemiology of privilege.” The goal would be to use predictive software to develop policies that apply leverage wherever it’s most effective (say, to community economic development) to make systems, including education systems, equitable.
“We haven’t done that yet,” Burke cautions. Modeling social contagions is a leap from modeling a biological disease, in part because those who want to use the tool would first need to agree on the most important factors that contribute to individuals’ overall well-being, access, and social mobility.
But Cordier is trying to raise awareness that “we have a software tool that can enable subject experts in housing, education, sociology, or anthropology to look at the outcome of policies.” If it works, the hope is it could also reveal the swiftest pathways to a just world.