CSU research team plans to fight disease outbreak with multiplayer game

Diego Felix

From left: Jay Breidt, Sangmi Pallickara and Shrideep Pallickara. (Lisa Knebl/Department of Computer Science)
From left: Jay Breidt, Sangmi Pallickara and Shrideep Pallickara. (Lisa Knebl/Department of Computer Science)

An interdisciplinary research team at Colorado State University is developing a collaborative-planning tool for combatting disease outbreaks. The group of computer scientists and statisticians is developing software in the form of a multiplayer game that will give government officials, agents and planners a better means of strategizing against the spread of livestock disease.

In the first year of this three-year project headed by Associate Professor of Computer Science Shrideep Pallickara, they received a $2 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security.  

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“For disease outbreaks you’re trying to identify how much field personnel you need, how many vaccines, what should my vaccine stock piles be,” Pallickara said. “You want to understand what are the economic consequences when you have disease outbreaks.”

Dubbed Symphony, the multiplayer gaming tool is designed with user cooperation in mind. Intended to provide an interactive framework more conducive to effective communication, planners will be able to collaboratively simulate disease outbreaks in real-time.

From cattle-carried illnesses like foot-and-mouth disease to cases of avian influenza, disease outbreaks can cause severe health and economic concerns throughout the United States. Federal agencies such as the DHS and the United States Department of Agriculture have interest in improving existing planning tools.

Currently, outbreak-planning models can take hours or even days to process the scope of data required for government agencies to make informed decisions. Through millions of back-end computing hours and processing up to a trillion data files, Pallickara and his team are cutting that time down to milliseconds.

 Symphony will allow players at various levels of the decision-making process to step into one another’s shoes.

“Planning is not done in isolation,” Pallickara said. “You need to have a group of people getting together.”

Group gaming works because concepts are reinforced when playing a game, according to researchers.

Additionally, the research team is developing a single-player version of this tool called “Sonata”, which will allow planners to simulate scenarios in a solo exercise.

The team is also comprised of Sangmi Pallickara, assistant professor in Computer Science, and Jay Breidt, professor of statistics.

Collegian Reporter Diego Felix can be reached at news@collegian.com or via Twitter @FMTLturntablist.

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