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The Doomsday Squad

By Rob Mitchum // March 1, 2017

Most people don’t want to imagine an earthquake or deadly disease outbreak hitting their city, but for a team at Argonne National Laboratory, envisioning the worst is their job. Chicago Magazine recently profiled Argonne’s Global Security Sciences division, including the Social and Behavioral Systems group led by CI Senior Fellow Chick Macal, which uses agent-based modeling techniques to simulate various types of disaster scenarios. From massive power outages to ebola outbreaks and even zombie invasions, the group (which also includes CI researchers Michael NorthJonathan Ozik, and John Murphy) examines how emergencies affect transportation, public health, and other urban systems, identifying key interventions and strategies that can minimize casualties and damage. As described by writer Bryan Smith:

Referring to it as a “computer model” is a little like calling a Mars mission a trip to the Adler Planetarium. The researchers at the GSS boast one of the fastest supercomputers in the world. Mira, Argonne’s mammoth IBM Blue Gene/Q system, consists of 48 server racks capable of 10 quadrillion calculations per second—allowing it to do in one day what would take 20 years on a desktop Mac.

This power enabled GSS scientists to predict the progress of a zombie contagion in ticktock detail by using what’s known as agent-based simulation. The particular simulation the GSS team used for the zombie exercise is called ChiSIM (Chicago Social Interaction Model). Based on detailed demographic data (population density by ZIP code, socioeconomic status, gender, household structure) and surveys revealing how city dwellers spend their time (work, play, dining out, taking the kids to school, hailing a cab), ChiSIM is, in essence, a fully actualized virtual population: millions of computer “scripts” that mirror the ages, locations, activities, work and leisure habits, and social proclivities of Chicago’s real 2.7 million souls. Evans describes it as a “unique set of data that allows us to know a type of schedule for everyone in Chicago.” They’ve even modeled the movements of students going to school and playing sports, the better to accurately predict disease transmission pathways.

You can read CI articles about the group’s research on the spread of health care information, the Repast software for running agent-based modeling simulations on high-performance computers, and urban design.

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