By Morven Watt
Picture this: It’s 2050, and a painfully beautiful scientist frowns in her lab. Hunkered over her petri dish, she’s found the one true cure for the disease that has ravaged the world. But how will she ever get it out to the public when she’s trapped by ravenous, brain-eating zombies?
From Contagion to World War Z, Hollywood has us believing that when a pandemic hits, one super scientist (and in rare instances, a small team of them) will save the world from disaster.
The past year has been revelatory in showing just how woefully unprepared we are for a global pandemic. Entire countries closed, flights were cancelled, hospitals were crippled by the influx of patients.
And where is Dr. Sexy, the superhero scientist?
2020 has shown us that the real hero may just be data science. With COVID-19 still raging across the US, it feels to a lot of people that there’s no end in sight. But behind computer screens, there’s a lot to be positive about.
For researchers, data science has helped by sifting through and analyzing exponential amounts of data, including vaccine data, in order to glean insights. Other programs are helping get drugs to market faster, which will be essential when a vaccine for COVID becomes available.
At a more practical level, programs that help detect supply chain risks and resource allocation can be used to ensure that those who need it most aren’t left wanting. A plethora of home learning and business resources have helped ensure that businesses can stay afloat, parents can stay home and the rest of us don’t spend all day watching Netflix during quarantine.
One such tool was created by researchers from the MIT Operations Research Center, and encompasses many of the aforementioned tools. COVID Analytics has calculators to help doctors quickly figure out infection risk and mortality, thus aid in processing patients through already overwhelmed hospitals.
It also has an “insights tool” that analyzes aggregate data from both clinical studies and patient data. As they put it so succinctly, “Effective decision-making needs data.” And we couldn’t agree more.
We want the sexy scientist to save the day because the allure of the quick fix has plagued humans for generations. We want the easy way out, now more than ever, because behind the mass hysteria of toilet paper and hand sanitizer hoarding, there lies a very real fear. Greater even than the fear of death is the fear of the unknown.
As more real-time insights become available to the general public, it helps demystify the often inflammatory and confusing news cycles. Data mining (using software to mine valuable insights from large batches of data) and machine learning (leveraging said data to get insights) have been instrumental in the aforementioned applications.
Moreover, they’ve helped remove that element of the unknown, something every doctor, scientist, politician (well, most of them anyway) and the general public is very grateful for.
So while we wait for Dr. Sexy to show up and save is from our post-COVID world, Dr. Data sure seems to be getting the job done.