In 2009 we planned for an influenza pandemic. I was in the room. I recorded it in a podcast

I have heard the ridiculous ‘plandemic‘ theory,  including one about a virus outbreak appearing in an election year. Or, that the US didn’t see this coming.


Well, in 2009, at ASU, I worked for an outfit that ran a 2-day pandemic planning exercise, with realistic scenarios. Elections were over. The participants were county health officials, school superintendents, infectious disease specialists.  People who would be called upon to make the tough calls, to safeguard populations, and schools.  Arizona State University’s WP Carey school of business was involved, as was the School of Health Policy and Management. But this was not what researchers typically call a ‘table-top exercise.’ This was a bit more realistic.

The location of this exercise was the Decision Theater – a visualization space that has a war room ambiance. (Fun fact: Decision Theater was used to movie as exactly that , where scientists wrestle with how to avert a catastrophe when an asteroid was heading to earth.)

Participants were presented with news reports, and data sets of unexpected scenarios: a virus entering the country through returning soldiers, outbreaks spreading to cities, and small towns, children infected etc. On the large screens in the Theater (also known as the ‘Drum’) our team created simulated news reports for each potential crisis point. The 2009 exercise, a follow up to the one in 2008,  was to be a test of how decisions would be made in an unfolding crisis.

Weeks before, our videographer, Dustin Hampton and I set up and recorded ‘news’ reporters, and edited story-lines that would track with the mathematical models that would be presented to the participants.  In one sense it was a fun exercise, even though the H1N1 Flu was a concern in some parts of the world.

I was in the room, and we were behind the scenes making the event look realistic. Cameras rolled, make-shift media were putting pressure on people to quarantine people, students, and shut down schools. I had not realized this but I had created two podcasts of the event, interviewing attendees.  They are a peek into the situation I describe.

This is not the only exercise of its kind that preempted the current pandemic. In May 2018 Johns Hopkins University ran a similar table-top exercise, that put people in a room to respond to realistic reports of a viral outbreak Watch the video below. It’s eerily similar. Even the date of the fictitious outbreak is so close, it shocked me when I watched it.

If you want more research into this, there’s a paper here:!

Below, is another interview we did with Dr. Robert Pahle who worked on another piece of software for pandemic preparedness.

POD Throughput Model from Decision Theater Network on Vimeo.

My last project at Decision Theater

It’s going to be one of the strangest parting shots. My one last project as I transit out of Decision Theater is the redesign of the present web site.


The typical questions I get asked go like this:

  • Why do you care?
  • Why would they want you to manage this?
  • Isn’t it odd, for the outgoing Communications Manager to have anything to say about an organization that’s changing direction?

My short answer is: I’ve been asked to do equally bizarre things. The Decision Theater web site, for all its visual appeal has been something I’ve wanted to update for a while. It sends a message of  ‘old media’ when we actually employ some really advanced tools and processes –from GIS data and visualization, to brainstorming tools, to interactive exercises. I began the blog, Light Bulb Moments ( and a podcast and a microblog, and white papers and…) partly as a solution to fill this gap, and partly to communicate quicker, link better, embed more and aspects of Decision Theater that tended to get buried in a static web site. If things go well, the new site will be extremely dynamic.

In case you’re wondering what  ‘transit out of the Decision Theater’ meant, it’s an euphemism I use very cautiously for:  ‘my job was eliminated due to budget cuts.’

Regretful? Yes. But I have started on a path of new media and communications that does not leave time for looking in the rear-view mirror. Ergo, spending my last days at ASU looking at what’s emerging, even in a place I say goodbye to.

Be careful about whom you (don’t) follow!

Lame move on my part!

I admit I don’t follow everyone who follows me on Twitter, because it’s just not possible to pay attention to so much chatter.

But today, I realized I had been following the wrong tweet on my mobile. In a real-world event this could have had major repercussions, especially if that person or group was part of a coordinated team.

The event I am talking about was a terrorist attack on a football stadium. OK, it was a mock  terrorist attack! The event was an emergency planning exercise at Arizona State University.

I was tweeting, taking photos, and recording audio for a podcast while my communication colleagues were tweeting. But ASU has so many people on Twitter now, it’s possible to not follow the right person! I feel more stupid since it was only last week that two others and I presented to a group about the value of Twitter, where I specifically mentioned how easy it was to send an on or off command via your mobile device to follow or turn off someone!

So the lessons learned:

  • Be careful whom you don’t follow – deliberately or accidentally
  • Think of Twitter as two parts listening post, one part micro-blog
  • Keep a short list of those you really need to follow –in a notebook!
  • Regularly check your account settings –esp ‘Device Updates’

Visual browsing of World News

I have been looking into how a GUI ( geekspeak for ‘graphic user interface’) could enhance a message, and am considering doing some cool interactive, kiosk-type visualizations in our lobby at the Decision Theater. Interactive displays such as the Campus Metabolism project from the Global Institute of Sustainability is one way to do this. It’s a web-based but is much more interesting on a touch-screen in their lobby.

newstinBut apart from aggregating data, a GUI could simplify the user experience, for news, as this site called Newstin demonstrates.

Click on the Newstin map, and it basically organizes world news from 166,000 sources, organized into about 1 million topics. Mind you, Newstin was created before the iPhone, so it’s easy to see how a widget could transfer this kind of experience to a mobile device.

Industrial design could send a message

How could a building or  structural feature send a stronger message about what you stand for than other design elements –web site, brochures, annual reports– you put out on a regular basis?

Not everyone could build a spectacular ‘shrine’ like Apple has, in Manhattan.

At ASU, the Global Institute of Sustainability takes a more pragmatic approach, with wind turbines on the roof generating power, even while solar panels are being installed in other parts of the campuses so as to take care of 20 percent of the total energy.

And speaking of wind power, this story out of London, of designers creating a column of light using wind power is more than a fancy energy project. It demos the capacity of creativity that could be unleashed within the urban planing when you let energy send a message.

jason-brugesIn this ‘tower of power’ as it is being called, there are 120 LED’s being powered by a “gentle” wind. Nothing fancy in the set up. A laptop is the only piece of technology behind it, apart from these 1,200 tiny fans. The designer, Jason Bruges Studio, calls it a wind-light.

Maybe someday outdoor signs will be lit this way.

So that, beyond growing lettuce (watch this video!) on the vertical face of a billboard, as McDonald’s did in this very daring/cool design, existing structures could send a passive message, with some “gentle” asistance from the sun, water and wind.

Stunning visualization of red and blue states

A colleague sent me this link from an NPR Science Friday story. It’s a story based on the voting pattern as seen through cartograms -maps that have been ‘density equalized’ by Michael Gastner and Mark Newman at the University of Michigan.

Being in the business of scientific visualization at the Decision Theater it’s fascinating to see science take a crack at politics, and why the red-state, blue-state concept trivializes the voting pattern.

The TV news networks, of course love the red-blue metaphor. We saw CNN‘s use of the ‘magic wall’ which was a recent creation by a company called Perceptive Pixel (it  sold similar walls to ABC and Fox).  MSNBC set up a 3D studio for some similar visual treats. CNN even played with teleporting, having the anchor interview a hologram, pushing visualization up several notches.

But NPR’s story is a great way to do a visual post-mortem of how the country voted. While holograms are just eye-candy, cartograms give a better picture of what happened. Gastner, by the way, lets you use his cartogram code, here, where there are more maps of the voting pattern. Talk about seeing things diffferently!

Big picture thinking, why is it so hard?

I was at a meeting yesterday morning where the discussion soon turned to how easy it is to look at a report or a set of charts and come to a ‘small picture’ conclusion.

We create models –the mathematical, 2D and 3D kind– here at the Decision Theater for clients that project out 20 or 30 years. But even as ‘big’ as this is in the big picture scheme of things, people easily run off with slices of this information just because it suits their agenda or world view. Water scarcity, a big picture scenario, doesn’t look so bad if you make certain small picture assumptions.

To come at this from a completely different angle,  Al Ries put it bluntly saying “No computer is as smart as a human being with a holistic point of view.” Ries, a marketing expert, was talking about “holism” and applying the need for holistic marketing thinking.

He asks why mathematicians and scientists “who developed the art and science of risk management” built models that could “comb through complicated mortgage portfolios to analyze everything,” and still been so off the mark. (A number that involves 7 and 11 zeroes, to wit!)

The answer, of course, is that they looked at risk up close, but not from a holistic, interconnected perspective.

The same goes for water, transportation, education, health. I like to tell people when presenting big picture concepts in the Drum, that even though we put things into nice buckets, we need to pay attention to the connections. Education planning involves transportation and urban growth –where would teachers live, how far will students travel, how many buses need to be in the school system?

Yes we do zoom in, move slider bars, tweak demand and supply. But we make sure people don’t undervalue the need to zoom out.

Dell’s green road trip bristling with social media

Dell is no newbie to new media. I have been tracking them for more than two years, especially Lionel Menchaca’s parlay into social media with the hugely popular DirectToDell, its attention to the blogosphere, its presence in Second Life, the new Digital Nomads effort, and even the use of Twitter for marketing Dell Outlet,

So when I heard Dell’s latest social media effort, a 15-day, 15-city sustainability road trip with non-profit group Grist was headed to ASU and stopping right here at the Decision Theater, it sounded like a program worth writing about myself. On Friday, Todd Dwyer, Dell’s Environmental blogger, came by with Sarah van Schagen, an editor for Grist.

The reason for the visit was to look at ASU’s role in sustainability, with the School of Sustainability, and our work with the Global Institute of Sustainability.

The ReGeneration blog has some interesting features, steeped in social media. There is the grafitti wall, exploiting web 2.0 to get visitors to contribute to contribute ideas to the site. Videos are posted to Quik, and there’s a graffiti art contest with entries like the one on the left.

They have two posts, and two videos worth checking out.

The rest of the road trip is worth following, too!

Cut to the chase with visualization

Despite what your position may be on Shell, you have to admit it invests a lot on visualizing the energy future –“more energy, less carbon dioxide”–it is grappling with, for good or ill. This is the stuff that gets churned out in white papers, and high-brow academic gatherings, but doesn’t often trickle down to the hoi polloi. We know by now that spreadsheets and PPT decks make people’s eyes glaze over..

In Shell’s 2050, post-Kyoto energy scenario, the visualization lets you pick a year from 2015 through 2050, and look at several factors that come into play in a planet that will be home to 9.5 billion in 2050; the ‘picture’ looks grim/complicated, even from within the cheerful graphics. It makes you want to do something whether it is to invest in fuel cells or reduce your carbon footprint.

Visualization is that great lens that puts data in context, and moves us to take action, even if it starts off with clicking a button. It can be as simple as being a dynamic feed. Check The speed at which you ‘see’ top-soil erosion taking place, and ‘dollars spent on dieting in the USA’ will give you a jolt!

We use similar, but more complex visualization tools to create scenarios like this at the Decision Theater. The most interesting one, WaterSim, lets people simulate a drought and see the effects on agriculture and lifestyle choices. The challenge is to take this complexity that works well in our immersive environment (the ‘drum’) and render it in a webified environment.

Looking around at so many data-rich web sites, I could see why many sites are begging to be rendered with more visualization. Those of us writing or designing data sheets and white papers will have to recognize some hard realities:

  • New platforms. People will use new devices and platforms to interact with our information via small screens, on high-res devices, and those capable of and hungry for animation.
  • Audience habits: Readers will demand to ‘snack’ on information, before they dig deep. Will our web pages and PDF’s cut to the chase? What’s a ‘media snack?” Check this out.
  • Time shifting. Information might be accessed (downloaded, snacked on) via one platform, consumed on another. Will the visual appeal transfer? Quality isn’t the issue, but compatibility. CNN stories watched on a high-def monitor still transfer to grainy formats on YouTube.

Visualization poses many challenges, but they are grood ones, because they force us to distil information, and give it more context.