The safest, smartest COVID reopening plan

Researchers from Engineering are creating digital “twins” of cities and testing a variety of scenarios to guide complex reopening decisions.(Photo by Maarten van den Heuvel from Pexels)

Researchers from McMaster Engineering are working on a way to guide decisions on reopening cities, businesses and other large operations during and after the pandemic.

COVID-19 reopening plans are complex and constantly changing, and there’s an urgent need for governments and large institutions to weigh public health risks against social well-being and economic benefit. But how do you quantify those things?

McMaster engineers Zoe Li and Wael El-Dakhakhni recently won a Roche Canada COVID-19 innovation award for CityDNA, a project that digitally models cities to create simulations that can inform decision-makers’ reopening plans.

What it is

A system that can create a digital “twin” of infrastructure systems to simulate and virtually test a variety of reopening scenarios for a city — or for the university — to support optimal decision making.

How it works

The researchers combine network science, machine learning, systems analysis and optimization to develop networks of municipal facilities and infrastructure. They’ll use simulations to identify areas that could lead to higher spread of the virus under different reopening scenarios, and will analyze each scenario to quantify potential risk and potential benefit.

“Once we come up with scenarios, it’s up to decision makers to decide what level of risk they are willing to take, and accordingly decide what measures to implement,” says El-Dakhakhni, director of McMaster’s INTERFACE Institute and a professor in civil engineering and the McMaster School of Computational Science and Engineering.

Li and El-Dakhakhni emphasize that this is not an epidemiological study and they are not examining how the virus behaves or spreads. This research looks at the role city systems play in that spread, and the subsequent risk to those systems.

Why it matters

Cities are urgently working to decide which operations to reopen in ways that won’t jeopardize public health and safety, and yet will minimize economic and social damage. A tool that accurately weighs risk against benefit will not only help guide decisions that protect residents, but will also make any reopening plan more cost-efficient.

What’s next

“Our plan is to build a complex network for McMaster and simulate different scenarios that will be able to provide some decision support – for example, whether we should open some small classes just to get the benefit of face-to-face instruction,” says Li, an assistant professor in civil engineering.

This new iteration of the project, “McMasterDNA,” is in early stages as the researchers gather more data on class sizes, class schedules, employee shifts and more.

Learn more about digital twinning and CityDNA on McMaster Engineering’s Big Ideas for a Changing World podcast, available on YouTubeSpotifyApple Podcasts and Google Podcasts

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