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January 31, 2011

Game-Like Simulations Boost Disaster Preparedness

Tiffany Trader

The launch of Johns Hopkins University Center for Advanced Modeling in the Social, Behavioral and Health Sciences brings the power of computer-based simulation to bear on a host of real-world hardships, such as disease, economic turbulence and catastrophic disasters. This is the subject of a feature piece at The Gazette, the Johns Hopkins University newspaper.

Heading the project is Joshua Epstein, a professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine and a leader in the burgeoning field of “agent-based” simulation modeling. This modeling approach uses virtual worlds populated by “agents” that act like real people. The agents are programmed to respond to a variety of real or imagined threats, such as a disease outbreak or a chemical spill. By shedding light on these what-if scenarios, the models help scientists predict and better prepare for critical real-life situations.

Agent-based models, or ABMs, are similar to what is seen in war games. Epstein explains that the simulation models are “highly visual and spatially realistic” with the agents moving much like real people to, from home to work to school, even travelling long distances. The application is similar to a video game, but instead of providing entertainment value, the goal here is to address specific scientific challenges.

What makes this research ground-breaking is that it draws from both the social sciences and the physical/computational sciences. For example, Epstein developed 3D video simulations to demonstrate the effect a sudden toxic chemical cloud would have on a crowded urban center like Los Angeles or New Orleans. This modeling method is the first to combine fluid dynamics (airborne chemical dispersion) and agent behavior.

Epstein, who holds a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, outlines his vision for the center:

“I see this as a place where the top professors and researchers from around the country, indeed the world, will want to come and work on collaborative projects, participate in symposia or develop entirely novel lines of research. I want it to be an intensely collaborative environment…which welcomes students and faculty to come and brainstorm, collaborate on papers, attend seminars, come up with brilliant new ideas. I see all kinds of innovative, exciting work coming out of this center, work that pushes important interdisciplinary research forward in a really dynamic way.”

The Center for Advanced Modeling, or CAM, will be a multi-disciplinary meeting ground, where the the best minds from a diversity of fields — emergency medicine, disaster health, social behavior, supercomputing and economics — gather in pursuit of “practical, novel scientific solutions to the many complex medical, social and institutional problems that society faces today.”

CAM’s distinguised partner institutions include the Santa Fe Institute (where Epstein is an external professor), Pittsburgh National Center for Supercomputing Applications, Virginia Bioinformatics Institute at Virginia Tech, the National Center for Computational Engineering at Tennessee and ETH Zurich.

Full story at The Gazette