Friday, Feb. 22, 15:05
So I’m at the presentation to welcome CMU’s new president-elect, Subra Suresh, yesterday when I hear something interesting. His wife, Mary Delmar Suresh, had been director of public health for Wellesley, Massachusetts.
Well, I know Wellesley, having lived in Belmont and worked in Waltham — long, looohng time ago. (In fact, my dad’s family is from Boston.) Even more of a coincidence: I was also a search-and-rescue teammate of Sue Webb, Wellesley’s animal control officer and an old friend.
At the reception following the presidential-welcome talks, I got a chance to speak briefly with Mary Suresh. It wasn’t exactly a surprise that the city’s public health director knew its ACO. But Mary’s smile broadened when I asked, and she said, “Sue has done so much for the town.”
Indeed; and more than just the town of Wellesley. I remember in particular a meeting of public safety folk, around 1991 or so. There I, being the 20-something self-regarded genius I was, lectured an older man on how he’d missed a core issue in getting people to evacuate in a disaster. Namely, that some people would refuse to evacuate rather than abandon their pets.
Sue, who’d known she’d be late to the meeting, had put me up to raising the issue. I’m pretty sure that she hadn’t realized I’d do it quite the way I did.
His position — which was pretty standard in the day — was that pets weren’t public safety agencies’ problem, and people should just “forget” the animals and save themselves. I pointed out how much easier, cheaper, and safer it would be to shelter the animals rather than rescue all the owners who hadn’t evacuated. I was careful to say, “It isn’t about the dogs.”
This guy, I found out later, was the public safety director for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Luckily, I hadn’t pissed him off too much — or maybe I pissed him off just enough — for Sue to swoop in and make some progress. I think the state’s disaster management plan today includes measures for sheltering pets that wouldn’t have existed without her discussion with him that day. The coincidence of my youthful arrogance and Sue’s credibility as a well-regarded ACO created an (unintentional, on my part) good-cop, bad-cop routine.
Which is apropos of the other topic of my brief conversation with Mary Suresh: Shawn Brown and his new Public Health Applications Group here at PSC. Public health is often a study in coincidence — from John Snow’s 1855 revelation that the physical coincidence of public water supplies and over-taxed sewer systems could produce a cholera outbreak, to the recent coincidence of global travel and misinformation-fueled failure to vaccinate kids leading to a measles outbreak in California.
Shawn thinks he can use Sherlock, by virtue of the machine’s big memory and heterogeneous processors, to create a model in which every 300-million of us in the whole U.S. is represented as an autonomous “agent,” acting the way people act, moving the way people move. And so telling us how an infectious disease would really spread — and which coincidences we have to pay attention to if we want to stop them.