operations research, disasters, and science communication

I had the pleasure of speaking at the AAAS Meeting on February 17 in a session entitled Dynamics of Disasters: Harnessing the Science of Networks to Save Lives. I talked about my research that addresses how to use scarce public resources in fire and emergency medical services to serve communities during severe but not catastrophic weather events. My research has application to weather events such as blizzards, flash flooding, derechos, etc. that are not so catastrophic that the National Guard would come. Here, a community must meet demands for fire and health emergencies within a community using the resources that they have during “regular” days – e.g., ambulances and fire engines – while the transportation network is impaired due to snow, flooding, etc. Everything is temporarily altered, including the types of 911 calls that are made and travel and service times as they are affected by an impaired transportation network. Plus, it’s always a lot of fun to mention “Snowmaggedon” during a talk.

Anna Nagurney organized the session, and the other speakers included David McLaughlin, Panos Pardalos, Jose Holguin-Veras, and Tina Wakolbinger. They talked about a number of issues, including:

  • how to detect tornadoes temporally and spatially by deploying new types of sensors
  • how to evaluate people and even livestock during hurricanes and floods
  • what the difference between a disaster and a catastrophe is
  • what types of emergency logistics problems require our expertise: national versus internationa, public vs. non-profit, mitigation vs. preparedness vs. response, short-term disaster vs. long-term disaster

I applaud Anna Nagurney for organizing a terrific session. It was fascinating to talk to people in my field about disasters without focusing too much on the modeling details. We all mentioned which types of methodologies we used in the talk, but we focused on the takeaways, actionable results, and policy implications. And it’s clear that the opportunities in this area are almost endless.

The AAAS Meeting is all about science communication to a large audience. The talks focus on broader impacts not specific model details. It’s not always easy for me to take a step back from my research and explain it at a higher level, but I get a lot of practice through blogging and talking about my research in my classes. Still, I was nervous. I am a mere blogger – the conference is heavily attended by real science journalists. In fact, I had to submit speaker information and a picture ahead of time so that journalists prepare for my talk. I truly felt like an OR ambassador – it was quite an experience.

I attended another session on disasters, where the topics often revolved around forecasting power, false alarms, and risk communications. I have blogged about these issues before in posts such as what is the optimal false alarm rate for tornado warnings? and scientists convicted for manslaughter for making a type II error. This appears to be an ongoing issue. According to the scientists on the panel, part of the problem stems from journalists who want to make a good story even juicier by not portraying risk accurately, thus leading to false alarm fatigue.

Other sessions at the AAAS Meeting addressed several fascinating topics. One session was on writing about science, and it featured a writer from the Big Bang Theory. Another session was about communicating science to Congress. Many of the speakers were from science publications and PBS shows.

I have at least one other blog post on science communication in the works, so stay tuned.

My slides are below:

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