This story is by Barbara Abbott and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Adam Fenter arrives at his plain but comfortably furnished office at the Max Planck Institute for Informatics in Saarbucken, Germany as always, at precisely 8:06 am. A psychologist would label it OCD, but as a data scientist, Adam likes to think of himself as methodical. His morning routine always puts him on the 7:38 train, after kissing his wife Hilga and two year old daughter, Brigit, goodbye.
He climbs to the third floor, the Department of Computational Biology and Applied Algorithms. After stopping in the lounge for another coffee, Adam settles in for 8 hours of fine tuning his algorithm—he is analyzing how the spread of Zika virus is impacted by weather changes.
He’s interrupted by a phone call from Dr, Alfred Dyson, who introduces himself as the World Health Organization’s representative to Guinea.
“We tracked you down through your last published paper. It’s Ebola. We need you onsite. Everything you need is here at the university.
Adam protests. “I’m much more useful to you working from here, with my research, my algorithms and high speed computing power.”
“It won’t work. Our communications links are are just too slow to the outside. We need you here— yesterday.”
It’s dark when Lufthansa Flight 3567 begins its descent toward Tombo Island, at the end of the Kaloum Peninsula. Adam peers down at the Los Islands. He doesn’t relish road work. Too much disruption to his routines leaves him anxious, edgy, unable to concentrate. But Dyson was insistent.
The air in Conakry, Guinea, is thick, engulfing Adam as he steps onto the tarmac. Dr. Dyson is waiting with a small convoy of army escorts to take him to Gamal Abdel Nasser University, the only facility with enough computing power to run Adam’s algorithms.
“Are those guns necessary?” Adam asks.
“People are scared. There’s been over 500 Ebola patients admitted to Donka Hospital. Families come on foot or in horse-drawn cart, bringing the sick from rural areas. This overcrowded city was already on edge, even before the outbreak. Add in fears of outsiders bringing virus—it’s a tinderbox.”
“But if you don’t let people into Conakry for treatment, the virus is only going to spread!”
“That’s why you’re here, Adam. You’ve got to help us get this under control.”
It’s a jolt, hearing those words. Adam’s not used to pressure. It makes it hard to properly set up, get settled into routines. Sweat pours down his temples, seeps down his neck and back. He loosens his collar, wondering if it’s caused by anxiety, or weather, or both.
He knows the odds are against him. Controlling an epidemic like this, against a backdrop of extreme poverty and weak health systems, is an uphill battle even with WHO and other medical groups working together. The average Ebola case fatality rate is around 50%.
At the university, Adam finds a ten year old computer, piles of disorganized files, and three eager research assistants. He calculates the clean up of data sets alone will take hours. He opens his laptop computer, connects a portable disk drive, and begins to create order out of chaos.
They walk him through it — medical data on the first 450 cases, research data from WHO. Ebola is spread through contact with human fluids, and so those carts families are using to bring patients to the city are infected, and beds and clothing at home are infected.
“The numbers are still below 1,000, we think,” Dr. Dyson tells him. “How do we prevent it from getting to 5,000, or 10,000?
“Dr. Dyson, you expect me to work from THIS?” He points with frustration toward the desk. He is edgy, anxious, but immediately regrets sounding angry. He justifies it by telling himself that Applied Algorithms is nothing if not structure. For emphasis, he reminds his hosts.
“Creating a structured model is why you brought me here — I need clean data, and lots of it. Where’s the map — I need to know where these people are coming from. And how did they reach the hospital? Also, give me everything on the 2014-2015 epidemic that killed over 10,000.”
He paces nervously, his right hand in a fist, rhythmically pounding the air — a gesture that helps him deal with the stress of skipping routines. As he paces, he calculates in his head. At the current rates of infection, the country has probably 24 hours to limit travel, to keep the virus from reaching the borders.
Researchers stumble over each other scrambling to fill his requests. Adam knows he needs hundreds of thousands of points of data as inputs to the “machine learning” algorithm, which will generate a model defining the likely path of the spread of Ebola. Armed with that model, WHO can convince the Guinean government to make the hard decision they’ve been reluctant to make—shutting down borders.
Researchers return with portable disk drives. Adam uploads the files, and with lightning fast fingers enters dozens of lines of code. He stares at the screen, waiting for the algorithm to digest the new data.
“The outbreak is on the border, on the Nunez River. My model shows it spreading in 72 hours to neighboring regions. They’ve got to shut down roads into the bordering provinces, from Boke and Kindia, out to Mamou. Have airports been shut down? Borders need to be closed. Now.”
“That’s not enough to convince the officials. It’s all about money. They won’t stop commerce.”
Adam stares at his code. “I need to know companies Guinea trades with—who delivers supplies, where do they export to, and how — by car, truck, boat?”
“That isn’t easy — information isn’t kept in a central location. But we’ll make it happen! ” Dr. Dyson is on his cell phone before he leaves the room.
Six hours later Dyson and research assistants return with a disk drive, but their expressions are dark, shoulders rounded in defeat.
“Adam, I’m sorry, it’s not enough. We have everything from government and hospital files, scanned in anything we could find. We got a few emails from provinces, but not everyone answered the request. It’s all we can get.”
“We’ll know soon whether it’s enough.” Adam uploads the data, and spends the next hour studying it, cleaning it.
“Okay, I”ll extrapolate. Using a statistical model I should be able to get something out of this.”
Ninety minutes go by.
The team gathers around his computer screen. Adam hits “Enter.” Colors appear on the map– Red at Ground Zero, the Nunez River, fading to orange in the surrounding Guinea provinces.
“That’s current status, color indicating number of cases. Now, show the Guinean government this.” Carter hits “Enter” again on his keyboard. The map slowly turns orange in surrounding provinces, and yellow in the adjacent countries of Sierra Leone, Liberia, Mali and Senegal.
“That’s 5 days from now. And here is 4 weeks out, if they don’t shut the borders immediately.”
Adam hits “Enter” once again, and the map shifts— red throughout Guinea and neighboring countries, orange in northern Africa, and in the Middle Eastern — Lebanon, Turkey. And yellow glows throughout Europe — from the UK to Russia, Norway to Italy.
Dr Dyson swallows hard.
“Get your stuff — let’s go.” Adam grabs his laptop and portable computer and scrambles outside, where a driver awaits in their jeep. It’s a bumpy 20 minute trip to Kaloum, the city center. The jeep screeches to a halt in front of a large pillared building. Adam scrambles to keep up as Dr. Dyson lunges up a flight of stairs to a large office. They don’t wait to be ushered in.
“We’ve got it. Watch this! ” Dr. Dyson says to the man behind the desk, as way of introduction.
Adam quickly assesses that his audience of one is someone higher up in the WHO organization. Adam begins his explanation of methods, data inputs.
“Adam SHOW HIM!” Dyson’s face is red, veins are popping out on his forehead.
With his right hand rhythmically pounding the air, Adam gasps hot, wet air. Flustered, on edge, his instincts telling him to go in order, step by step. But this time, his obsession with order and routine is impeding progress, possibly costing lives. Adam regroups, exhaling a long breath. He jumps ahead to the maps he showed the team back at the university. The gentleman behind the desk nods.
“This will do it. Great work.”
Standing outside in the city center, Dr. Dyson explains what happens next — WHO escalates information to the UN, to embassies — and pressure from the international community will force Guinea to take action and implement the travel ban.
The sun is high now, but the air is still wet, heavy, unhealthy.
Dr. Dyson’s phone rings. “You’re sure?” A long pause. “ Okay.”
“Adam, we’ve got to head across town.
“Great, get me to the airport so I can go home.”
“No, I’m afraid we can’t. One of the researchers has come down with a fever. We’ve been exposed. We’re headed to Donka Hospital.”