At the frontiers of public health

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Ajay Vinze
Dean Ajay Vinzé

As we all now know from bitter experience, there’s more to proper pandemic response than pills and vaccines. Medical authorities must identify potential hot spots before widespread infection becomes manifest, through early-detection methods such as wastewater testing. With these warning signals, health departments can take preventive action – lockdowns, school closures, etc. – to stop the spread. To build the systems that can make this possible, skilled epidemiologists need to work side-by-side with data scientists who can help them crunch the numbers and predict possible outcomes of various interventions.

Long before COVID was a household word, Dr. Ajay Vinzé, now dean of Mason’s business school, helped pioneer just such a collaboration with public-health officials in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix and is the fourth-largest county in the United States by population. Vinzé calls this nearly decade-long partnership “a major part of my research and professional journey.”

According to Vinzé, the collaboration began in late 2002 with a missed flight in the Dallas airport. He found himself sitting next to another Phoenix-bound traveler, and the two struck up a conversation. At the time, Vinzé was an associate professor at W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University researching artificial intelligence applications for business problem-solving, including how viruses spread on computer networks, in close collaboration with companies such as Intel and IBM. One of his ongoing research projects focused on failure analysis and failure identification (FA/FI). As Vinzé described his work, his impromptu travel companion – who, as it turned out, was Jonathan Weisbuch, then Director and chief health officer for the Maricopa Department of Public Health – listened closely, asked pertinent questions, and finally invited Vinzé to sit down with a group of leading Arizona epidemiologists.

Why would a top health officer for Arizona’s largest county want his colleagues to listen to an information systems professor? Because Weisbuc recognized that, as Vinzé says, “Computer networks are similar to human systems. Failure means not being able to detect early on that certain propagation is imminent. That’s the same thing you do in computer security.” The two fields also share basic preventive principles and best practices. “To inoculate yourself against viruses on the computer, you need to know the characteristics of the virus, how it spreads, and what happens after infection … and pertinent policy to control the same. Same thing for humans!”

Sarah Santana, Maricopa’s director of epidemiology, found common cause with Vinzé, enlisting him and his colleagues in her department’s efforts to refine post-9/11 surveillance protocols for handling the threat of bio-terrorism. Their work together ultimately led to an article in Information Systems Frontiers (co-authored by Minu Ipe and T.S. Raghu) examining the parallels between “information supply chains”, e.g. Arizona’s state-wide MEDSIS online public-health surveillance network, and e-commerce platforms such as Amazon. In both cases, so-called “information intermediaries” can play a vital role including, but not limited to, aligning incentives and reducing information asymmetry among multiple stakeholders. The paper details how Arizona’s public health department acted as intermediary, paving the way for Maricopa County to join the state-wide system instead of managing its own data independently.

Vinzé gives Santana immense credit for her foresight and openness in allowing ideas imported from business research into public-health emergency preparedness and response. In turn, Santana introduced Vinzé to contexts and questions from beyond academia that widened the aperture of his research lens.

The particularities of the human organism, after all, rarely enter into information systems research but are pivotal to the success of public-health initiatives. Vinzé observes that this comes into play when deciding on key metrics: “How do you attribute value to saving one human life?” The human element also brings a host of contingencies and complications that aren’t salient when dealing with machines.

Vinzé’s gradual coming-to-grips with these intricacies culminated in a 2012 paper for ACM Transactions on Management Information Systems (co-authored by Hina Arora and T.S. Raghu) modeling dynamic interactions between disease transmission, pharmaceutical interventions (e.g. vaccines), and policy-based interventions (e.g. school closures). “It’s a rich simulation exercise – we built the system and turned it over to the county,” Vinzé explains. Using actual characteristics from the 2009 H1N1 pandemic as a test case for various policy approaches, the mathematical model generated numerous insights for guiding public-health policymakers not just in Maricopa and the southwest United States, but perhaps worldwide. For example, the simulation showed that rolling school closures of two to four weeks were not only less effective at reducing transmission than county-wide, eight-week closures – but they also resulted in more weeks of shutdown over the length of the pandemic. Additionally, the results reinforced the researchers’ intuition that the quality of pandemic response hinges upon finding the right mix of pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical interventions. Years later, these data-driven principles would be put to the ultimate test during the COVID pandemic.

Over the course of his long collaboration with Santana and the Maricopa health authorities, Vinzé got the chance to view public-health challenges from virtually every angle. “We did survey research for them, sometimes experimental research, sometimes systems-building,” he says. He even served on a healthcare-focused working group as part of the planning process for Super Bowl XLII (2008), and subsequently Super Bowl XLIX (2015) both held in Glendale, Arizona. In 2012, Vinzé was recognized with a Faculty Achievement Award from Arizona State University for “defining edge research and creative work for professional application” recognizing high impact research over a ten-year period – his association with public health was acknowledged as a main driver of impact. 

In hindsight, Vinzé suggests that his foray into public health spotlights and clarifies certain aspects of digital transformation. He points out that technological advancement comes in waves, producing sudden surges in computing power, processing speed and data accessibility. With each wave, public- and private-sector actors alike experience a tidal force of opportunity (for leaders) or adversity (for laggards). Collaborations between academia, business and government can help translate technological evolution into positive outcomes for the economy, communities and the wider society.

“Each wave has an implication on the workforce of that time. We’re going through this big wave as we speak, coming out of COVID. The question is, are we ready?” Vinzé says.