School of Public Health and Community Medicine

Chimaera Evolution - computational modeling of complex emergencies and disasters

Chimaera Evolution image

Health security and protection has become increasingly uncertain in recent years. The assumptions that underpin preparedness and response decision are likely no longer valid. We are working to understand how to better plan, prepare for and respond to complex emergencies and disasters in this changing world.

Black Swans – such as Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear (CBRN) attacks, Weapon of Mass Destruction events, natural disasters or major epidemics – are high consequence crises that have historically been thought to occur rarely and are largely unpredictable. In contrast, Black Swans are happening now, are occurring more and more frequently, and are likely in the future to require extensive military assistance and support to stretched civilian capacity and capability.

Civilian and military response organisations are generally highly enmeshed and interdependent on wider social and technical systems, in combinations and contexts not previously anticipated during crises, rendering accepted dogma and historical assumptions invalid. Recent real-world examples of health crisis operations incorporating multiple complex socio-technical systems and breaking down traditional assumptions outside of Australia are the 2014 West African Ebola response, and the response to the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima Daiichi reactor accident and aftermath.

UNSW’s School of Public Health and Community Medicine (SPHCM) has been working with Australia’s Defence Science and Technology Group to develop novel computational modelling and simulation approaches to understand and challenge key planning assumptions, explore the nature of various disaster scenarios in the contemporaneous social and health context, and to help optimise policy.

The study, led by Associate Professor David Heslop aims to develop computational modeling and simulation approaches using complexity theory, hybrid (agent based coupled with other forms) modeling and simulation, and multidisciplinary approaches to parametrisation, to understanding how disasters and emergencies unfold and how current and proposed policy influence positive and negative public health outcomes.

Supported by funding from Defence Science and Technology Group the research will develop a prototype system that allows researchers to conduct “experiment by simulation”. This allows decision makers, policy makers and response coordinators and managers the ability to counterfactually explore situations that cannot be replicated through exercises due to cost and feasibility, or that would be unethical to conduct in real life such as placing individuals at high risk of harm during research. The value and impact of this research will be to support change in local, national and international policy surrounding high risk health security concerns – many of which are becoming more likely to occur, and present a greater threat to humanity into the future.