CITIES’ Newsletter Issue #3: Fighting COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) and learning from this experience

 CITIES Research

The Center for Interacting Urban Networks (CITIES) at New York University Abu Dhabi promotes excellence in research aiming to real improvements in terms of economic opportunity and growth, safety and security, health and wellness, and the overall quality of everyday life in urban areas, with a particular emphasis on Abu Dhabi and the UAE. This newsletter highlights our recent efforts in fighting COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) and learning from this experience.

Blood supply chain optimization amid the COVID-19 Pandemic
Ali Diabat, Professor of Civil and Urban Engineering, CITIES Investigator

On March 11th, 2020, the COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) was officially declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO). By now, more than one year later, COVID-19 has infected over 128 million people and taken more than 2 million lives. Countries such as the UAE have instituted a range of mandates to minimize transmission of the disease. These efforts ranged from require individuals wearing masks and gloves in public places to a complete lockdown lasting for weeks or months. These restrictions have affected the availability of essential items, and their deliveries have become more challenging than ever. One of the most essential items that faced an extreme shortage was fresh blood and its components (red blood cells, plasma, and platelets). The blood shortage was not caused by COVID-19 patients requiring additional blood; instead, the shortage emerged from regular donors being fearful of leaving their homes to donate. Additionally, GCC and many other countries have started using the plasma of recovered COVID-19 patients to speed up the treatment of currently infected patients.

Combining the current blood shortage and the relatively short life of its components with the uncertainty in demand and supply generates an immediate need for an optimally run supply chain with arrangements that encourage donors to leave their houses to donate. Demand and supply are uncertain factors because unspecified events that may create surges are hard to predict. Further, donor behavior is equally unpredictable. Shortages are not acceptable because that leads to increased mortality rates while conversely, hoarding large quantities of blood products leads to waste which is similarly frowned upon since donors are scarce assets. Therefore, optimal decisions must be made to ensure a balance is maintained while respecting the shelf-lives of products.

Our work focuses on proposing mathematical models that maintain a balance between shortages and waste for the blood supply chain. These models involve decision-making for supply amounts collected, inventory levels, waste levels, and transfusion decisions. The insight that can be obtained from solving these models will help the governments and lawmakers in the UAE and globally make laws that help minimize shortages in such unprecedented times.

Curbing present and future epidemics with good policy
Azza Abouzied, Associate Professor of Computer Science, CITIES Co-Principal Investigator

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged policymakers across the world. With an arsenal of interventions at hand from enforcing mask-wearing, remote learning and working, social distancing, to vaccination drives, policymakers have to design and communicate intervention plans that reduce disease burden while maintaining a healthy economy. Understanding the effects of these plans on disease spread and economic costs can be a complex modeling process often requiring different stakeholders such as public health officials, epidemiologists and economists working together to construct plans that impact millions of lives. Current epidemic simulators make it difficult to engage in the exploratory what-if analysis required to determine the cost-benefit of different intervention plan proposals.  Moreover, the lack of separation between the code that models disease spread dynamics and interventions in existing software tools precludes the potential for automated policy optimization.

As part of their research efforts within the CITIES center, PI Azza Abouzied (Associate Professor of Computer Science, NYUAD) and co-investigator Dennis Shasha (Professor of Computer Science, Courant Institute, NYU) along with their research team have developed EpiPolicy: a novel epidemic-control policy planning and optimization tool. EpiPolicy provides a declarative language for specifying disease models, features of the population and administrative locales relevant to a disease, the cost and effect of interventions and a spatial-temporal schedule of interventions or a plan. Each of these are specified independently, allowing stakeholders to engage in what-if analysis where modifications to parameters or schedules do not require labor-intensive and error-prone code rewrites. Moreover, a “Monte Carlo” optimizer explores millions of possible intervention-plans with different control settings per administrative locale and population sub-group for each intervention to suggest one that reduces overall disease burden and reduces economic costs.

In a pilot case-study, the team has demonstrated the power of EpiPolicy with respect to the UAE. In the case-study, the team has constructed a model based on estimates of parameters influencing the spread of COVID-19 in the UAE, as well as key population and mobility features. They evaluated several locally-applied interventions and illustrated with the help of EpiPolicy’s what-if analysis features, how modifying existing interventions such as reducing mask-wearing compliance can lead to poor disease control outcomes and worse economic costs. They also illustrated how utilizing EpiPolicy’s plan optimization tool can produce cost-effective vaccination plans that prioritize elders and consider the different efficacies and availabilities of current vaccines.

Check the below videos:

How did we change the way we move in large urban environments during COVID-19?
Kinga Makovi, Assistant Professor of Social Research and Public Policy, CITIES Co-Principal Investigator

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a tremendously disruptive period of everyday lived experiences across the globe. Stay at home orders, the closure of schools, transition to remote work for many and restrictions on public transportation upended our daily lives as we knew it. These changes have direct implications for how people move in cities.

In large metropolitan areas in the U.S. a significant proportion of mobility typically flows through hubs, such as downtown areas or central business districts. It is also commonplace that neighborhoods are not connected to one another at equal rates via the movement of people, as places similar in socio-demographic composition tend to be linked more densely, while they remain less connected to other parts of the city, giving rise to the modular structure of these mobility networks. Using cellphone location data, we compare these networks in 2019 and 2020 to describe how the COVID-19 pandemic altered them in the 25 largest cities in the U.S. Not surprisingly, we find that the importance of hubs decreases dramatically during the first peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it quickly reemerges by the summer. We also see mobility networks become more modular in 2020, and therefore neighborhoods become more isolated from one another, however, in this respect mobility networks never fully regain their 2019 structure.

These changes matter, especially in urban environments as previous research has shown that contact between diverse groups increases mutual trust and cooperation which are key to the functioning of large, cosmopolitan cities. Moreover, how people view their own neighborhoods matters for compliance with public health guidelines and regulations when on the move. For instance, we discover that in the U.S., Germany and Singapore, those who believe that their neighbors adhere to public health guidelines report following them more often than those who do not see their neighbors as compliant. Similar findings emerge from our survey data collected in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

In sum, when it comes to the spread of the virus, it matters where we go, but also where we come from. How we see our neighborhoods influences our behaviors when we move, and thus to how much risk we expose ourselves and others while traveling. In the era of COVID-19, research on everyday mobility, as well as the behaviors we exhibit while moving is key to understand which policies work to limit the spread of the virus and will provide us with lessons for future public health emergencies to come.
 CITIES and CCS research program

The Center for Interacting Urban Networks (CITIES) and the Center for Cyber Security (CCS) at NYUAD  jointly activated two new interdisciplinary research projects at the crossroads of both centers. 

Assessing the threat levels of misinformation campaigns

This research aims to build a Machine Learning based framework that assesses the threat level of misinformation campaigns for societies. Misinformation campaigns are a modern form of information warfare. The research focuses on assessing the threat levels to prioritize the attention of mitigating agencies on campaigns that may pose more significant threats to civil society. This is a timely goal in the current political atmosphere and the age of information flooding, where misinformation is targeting key global vaccination campaigns such as that against COVID-19.

Stealthy attacks on autonomous vehicle-based control systems and their defenses 

This research aims to investigate attacks and defenses for the machine learning modules in connected and automated vehicles (CAV). With increased automation comes increased vulnerability to cyber-attacks that can hack a vehicle’s electronic systems. Researchers have demonstrated an ability to take over a vehicle’s electronic systems and cause crashes. The research focuses on a new type of attacks on the deep neural networks of CAV, the so-called Backdoored Neural Networks, that only behave maliciously when triggered by specific inputs and on the relevant mitigation strategies.

CITIES sponsored events

Despite all challenges, CITIES continues to offer high-profile engaging activities.

  • ASCE Future CITIES Competition (Spring 2021)
    ASCE@NYUAD, in collaboration with CITIES and the Department of Municipalities and Transport of Abu Dhabi (DMT) has launched a competition to reimagine and prepare cities for future changes. Interdisciplinary teams of students from NYUAD were invited to identify potential challenges faced by future cities, in particular Abu Dhabi, and propose innovative and ingenious solutions
  • Faculty of Society & Design – Bond University, Australia (March 17th)
    Kinga Makovi (CITIES Co-PI) presented CITIES unique interdisciplinary approach and her recent work on Curbing Present & Future Epidemics with Good Policy at Bond University, Australia. This is a first step towards a new fruitful international collaboration.

  • Synergies of Energy, Waste, Mobility (March 22nd)
    CITIES in collaboration with Maker Faire Rome and the oil and energy company Eni (a partner of ADNOC), jointly presented a web panel discussion focusing on the benefit of a “circular” approach to waste, energy, and mobility for the future of cities. 
  • CFM & CITIES Panel: What job opportunities for you will emerge across the world after the pandemic? (April 28th)CITIES and the Center for the Future of Management (CMF) will jointly present a panel discussion focusing on the effects of COVID-19 in shaping job opportunities in cities worldwide, a hot topic for the NYUAD student community. The speakers of the event are: Maha Al Dhaheri (Specialist – Future Foresight Strategic Planning Division, DMT), Ashish Batia (Professor of Management & Entrepreneurship, NYU Stern), Arpit Gupta (Professor of Finance, NYU Stern).

  • Webinar: Neuro Cities (April 29th)
    CITIES in partnership with the NYUAD psychology department will host Dr. Daniela Ottmann and Dr. Oliver Baumann from Bond University, Australia. They will present their cutting edge research on the relationship between natural and built environments and their effect on mood, stress, and cognition. Their innovative approach will place investigation and measurement in the actual environment, with particular focus on hot environments such as that in the UAE.

What’s coming next?

Stay tuned for the Issue #4 of our newsletter! Our upcoming issue will focus on a broad range of possible policy interventions targeted to the UAE and Abu Dhabi.