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ASU's Decision Theater tools help navigate pandemic's uncertainty

Director Jon Miller presents in the Drum at Decision Theater

Director Jon Miller presents inside the Drum at Decision Theater on Tempe campus. Credit: Tim Trumble for Arizona State University

May 01, 2020

Forecasting and tracking new cases of COVID-19, ensuring supplies and resources are positioned where and when they are most needed, and determining effective economic recovery plans is no easy feat — doing these things well requires vast amounts of data from a variety of sources.

In fact, solving the myriad challenges caused by the COVID-19 crisis requires not only the data itself, but also the ability to integrate and visualize it, as well as minds from a host of fields to interpret its meaning.

Though it’s not every day that we face a pandemic, it is every day that Arizona State University’s Decision Theater uses exactly that set of capabilities to tackle an array of complex problems facing societies and organizations throughout the world.

The right tools for the job

The capabilities that Decision Theater developed through past collaboration with the U.S. Army for humanitarian relief have applications for the current crisis, according to Director Jon Miller. In that project, supply chains, demand and transportation models, and operational environments were brought together to provide a common working picture for all leaders to share.

The implications of changes in things like flooding conditions; supply availability, consumption and resupply rates; airfield, rail and port supply capabilities and capacities; conditions at shelters and hospitals and more were all instantly captured, integrated, visualized and reported in real time — a capability that can save lives in critical decision moments.

Miller also sees great potential in Decision Theater’s ability to integrate real-time information coming from any one of a number of third-party data sources, such as social media, websites or externally maintained databases.

Gathering this data, tracking changes and conducting predictive analytics can help critical facilities around the state stay one step ahead of COVID-19. For instance, this information would allow for strategic positioning of personnel and resources before an influx of patients, helping ensure that systems are not overloaded at critical times.

“Imagine the value of a common operating picture that provides situational awareness of the status of facilities, such as the location of equipment and staffing levels, and that being integrated with models that tell you where and when the demand for these things might occur,” Miller said. “Decision Theater can do all these things.”

Adapting to the times

The physical hub of Decision Theater activities is located on the Tempe campus, which hosts a circular room known as the Drum where leaders gather to see data and models on seven surrounding screens. But don’t let that image limit your vision of Decision Theater, Miller said. The advanced technologies that allow researchers in Arizona to collaborate with policymakers in Washington, D.C., adapt well to serving distributed decision-makers in the era of social distancing.

“We are operating in a virtual environment now almost as effectively as we would by convening in the immersive, visualized environment of the Drum,” Miller said. “We’re still able to convene, show our work product and have meaningful dialogue. We have really not skipped a beat.”

This is critical, since bringing people together — experts from different fields, policymakers and those with differing perspectives and values — and facilitating informed conversations between them is a central part of Decision Theater’s purpose.

Decision Theater also offers technical abilities such as software development, data analytics, predictive analytics and data visualization, all of which allow visitors to see complex problems in new ways. According to Miller, integration is the key.

Now, several groups around ASU and the local community are exploring how they might be able to put Decision Theater to use to solve COVID-19-related challenges in Arizona.

Supply chain explained

Decision Theater recently collaborated with Northern Arizona University to launch a public-facing web application that helps demystify the U.S. supply chain from the comfort of your home laptop.

Their tool, called FEW-View, allows users to visualize what areas of the country their communities rely on for food, energy, water or other in-demand commodities (think toilet paper).

“We designed a system that gives a layman's view of these complex supply chains while providing a better understanding of how dependent or resilient your community is,” said Rahul Salla, technical director of Decision Theater.

The tool can also be used at a higher level to inform emergency management decisions, though its creators encourage seeking their expert assistance for that kind of detailed analysis.

“Predictive tools can help decision-makers assess where to position or direct sources while allowing them to respond with scientifically informed decisions,” he said.

For the future, Salla envisions integrating even more refined data beyond the county level to individual zip code data. This would allow decision makers to be even more precise in planning and directing supplies. The tool offers broad value beyond the current pandemic, showing how events in isolated areas, metropolitan areas or individual states can affect other communities that rely on them for various resources.

Helping small businesses survive COVID-19

Rajesh Buch, the practice lead for sustainability at ASU International Development, is exploring how Decision Theater can help businesses understand how the economy and different industries might evolve in our post-COVID-19 future.

Currently, ASU is a participant in a weekly meeting of organizations that engage small businesses in the Valley, called the Small Business Providers Collective. Members include the Small Business Administration, City Economic Development Department, Better Business Bureau, Arizona Commerce Authority and many others. Buch’s group is looking at how they might work with these organizations to gather data on ways local businesses are being affected by the pandemic.

“Our role right now could be a knowledge leader, collating all that information and making it accessible to all small business members around the state,” Buch said. “In the longer term, Decision Theater can start looking at the data, analyzing it and modeling it.”

Buch is also talking with Decision Theater about analyzing and modeling economic and workforce impacts. For example, they could study spending before the pandemic to understand how to help society return to those spending patterns. An analysis of the workforce could shed light on how employees — such as those working for struggling small businesses— can shift their skill sets to become more resilient.

Planning for a post-pandemic world

Beyond addressing the present crisis, Decision Theater is also looking toward the future in its problem-solving efforts.

“Eventually we’re going to get through this pandemic, and when we do, it’s going to be important to capture the lessons learned so that we can more rapidly apply science and information-technology-enabled capabilities to the next emergency,” Miller said. “As we are being reminded in the current COVID-19 environment, systems like what we are describing must be in place in advance of the crisis.”

To that end, Decision Theater is working with subject matter experts from a variety of sciences, including epidemiologists, economists and complexity scientists, among others. Throughout the pandemic, they have been collecting global social media data that will allow a variety of comparisons between national responses. Using these information sources and more, Decision Theater will be able to work with Arizona leaders to prepare decision tools that more quickly harness the combined power of artificial intelligence, science and subject matter expertise.

The ultimate goal is the same for this project and all the work at Decision Theater — help leaders make sense of vast amounts of data, explore possible solutions to our most complex challenges, and make informed decisions for the future.

If you are interested in working with Decision Theater, contact Miller at

Decision Theater is partially supported by Arizona’s Technology and Research Initiative Fund. TRIF investment has enabled thousands of scientific discoveries, over 800 patents, 280 new startup companies and hands-on training for approximately 33,000 students across Arizona’s universities. Publicly supported through voter approval, TRIF is an essential resource for growing Arizona’s economy and providing opportunities for Arizona residents to work, learn and thrive.

FEW-View was funded in part by the National Science Foundation.

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