interview  | 

Data analytics makes it possible to build a predictive model for the spread of Covid-19

Predicting the future in the lab to protect the present in real life; the i2CAT Foundation has developed a simulator for the spread of the pandemic which leverages big data to put forward prevention strategies.

Tags: 'Big Data' 'Digital professions' 'Work in Barcelona'


Reading Time: 3 minutes

We interviewed Xavier Jordán, Digital Innovation Manager at the i2CAT Foundation. He leads strategic research and innovation initiatives in advanced digital technologies (architecture, applications and services) and communications networks, artificial intelligence, VR, cybersecurity, etc. He is currently involved in developing a model for predicting the spread of Covid-19.

At the i2CAT Foundation you are working on a Covid-19 spread simulator. Tell us briefly how it works.

It helps us study how outbreaks will evolve and also lays down lockdown strategies by region and assesses the socioeconomic impact on the public. It is rooted in a stochastic approach in which a population of individuals is modelled (each with their own age, sex, place of residence, purchasing power, mobility and other features) and these “programmed” individuals are allowed to interact with their community in line with the behavioural patterns which we have set for them beforehand. This means we can observe in the laboratory how the virus spreads in a controlled region from the baseline and get a ballpark picture of what might happen in reality.

Big data is an essential working resource, among many others, in its development. How would you explain to an outsider what this digital field consists of? What do its specialists do?

A big data specialist identifies, filters and drives the strategic opportunities the data hold

We live in a fully digital society. And that means a huge amount of data coming from countless sources. At our facility, based on the data supplied to us by operators and following a validation check by the National Institute of Statistics, the main task of our big data technical people is to analyse, consolidate and filter these data to identify the ones that are of interest to us. Our ultimate goal is to get enough accurate information to deliver business solutions to real problems in our cities.

How are you applying Big Data's potential in this project and what makes it stand out from other digital techniques?

Big data-based simulation allows us to measure with high precision the impact of events which have not yet taken place

The big data tools we use at the i2CAT Foundation currently enable us to study the behaviour of a virtual population of 500,000 individuals. We are seeing that the simulation results are consistent with the expected evolution graphs and match the data provided by the authorities handling Covid-19.

We are now working on a second, more complex model that could encompass volumes of up to 5 million individuals, which if translated to a real scale would mean everyone living in the Barcelona Metropolitan Area. To do this, we mine best practices for optimising computing, supercomputing and data analysis resources which enable us to sketch out this advanced model.

What tools, advantages and/or solutions does your predictive simulator give the health authorities so they can draw up more efficient containment plans?

One of our model’s biggest advantages is its ability to question itself. By testing this learning ability in real time we get more information and more optimal predictive algorithms which we can then use to advise policymakers and check together to what extent their lockdown or travel restriction plans have worked on the ground. It is a process that feeds back and improves with each iteration. This confirms the power of big data’s tools to go beyond deskwork and have a constructive impact on tackling today’s challenges.

What is the biggest challenge in the project?

The main challenge, but also one of the greatest personal satisfactions, is working every day with experts and researchers in various fields; the synergies. Alongside the engineers in the digital department, there are also scientific and technological specialists, epidemiologists, sociologists, experts in statistics and demography, etc. from centres of excellence who are also taking part in this project. To reach our goal together, we are learning to speak the same common language and to put ourselves in the shoes of our colleagues, to understand each area of research and ensure their outputs produce useful information in your area and vice versa. The journey has only just begun!

Para terminar, ¿qué dirías a los profesionales digitales del mañana para inspirarles a especializarse y crecer en App Development?

Las aplicaciones digitales son el escaparate de las empresas y organizaciones, y los perfiles profesionales que acompañan su desarrollo están a la vanguardia de la innovación y del talento digital. Además, es muy gratificante ver que el fruto de tu trabajo impacta en las vidas de tantísimas personas, ayudándoles a cubrir sus necesidades y seguir hacia adelante, sobre todo en el panorama actual.