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Data Tracking

By Katie Sigeti ’06 philanthropy manager, alumni programs
David Shaw ’14 is a research engineer that tracks major health crises around the world.
At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, anxieties surrounding the novel coronavirus and what the future had in store ran sky-high. As people worldwide began to grapple with the disease’s impact, a thirst for knowledge about the virus and its potential trajectory grew. At the same time, data and forecasting models began to emerge. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), an independent health research center at UW Medicine at the University of Washington, became a leader of COVID-19 data tracking.

David Shaw ’14 is a research engineer for IHME, whose mission is to track the global burden of disease. The organization annually produces the Global Burden of Disease report, summarizing the major health crises faced in each country in a given year and over time. They create various metrics that illustrate and quantify the burden of disease. As the pandemic grew in the United States, Shaw and his teammates focused on rapidly building COVID-19 forecasting models. 

“When COVID-19 started, our focus shifted a lot,” he shares. “Because we had already done so much work with predictive forecasting and epidemiology, we were asked initially by the University of Washington hospital system to provide a forecasting model so that they could estimate how many hospital beds they were going to need. What they were curious about is how many people in Seattle are going to need a hospital bed and whether they could support that kind of capacity and the surge in hospital resources,” explains Shaw.

The project garnered national attention. As a result, IHME started forecasting models for Washington State as well as other states in the U.S. They have collaborated with the White House and Dr. Anthony Fauci, as well as with Google.

Shaw began working at IHME two years ago as a data analyst on the Global Burden of Disease project after graduating from Washington University in St. Louis. He now works in scientific computing, and with the onset of the pandemic, he assists with IHME’s COVID-19 project. When talking about how this project has evolved, he points to their success at getting the data-processing time down from 11 hours to 40 minutes. “We work with large volumes of data, so the amount of time our computers take to calculate our final numbers is non-trivial,” Shaw states. “That was a huge win.”

While the project has faced challenges and limitations (e.g., certain countries’ governments are unwilling to share data), one of the most exciting aspects has been creating a brand-new project from the ground up. “COVID’s a very unique sandbox because it’s one of the few times we’ve gotten to build a system from scratch,” says Shaw. “It’s one of the very few times we’ve managed to have engineers looped in on the project from start to finish.” 

Over the past several months, they have also seen many innovations in methodologies, now setting forecasts based on what kinds of mandates are in place, how many people are wearing masks and what level of mobility there is.

Shaw credits the enthusiasm of his teachers at LJCDS for shaping his career path, particularly regarding his journey in math. “I didn’t go into college expecting to major in something quantitative, but I remembered I loved math classes in high school because it was more about learning all the different concepts, and they taught it almost more like a language,” he says. “I had such energetic teachers. I had Mr. [Dave] Schall for calculus during senior year,  and he was so excited every single day to teach. It made a  huge difference.”

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