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Michael O’Sullivan: Data leads New Zealand’s COVID-19 response

A native New Zealander and engineer versed in data modeling shifts focus from business to public health and contributes to his nation’s response to a dangerous pandemic.

Success story | Adobe Stock/Lev

Success story | Adobe Stock/Lev

Stanford engineering alumnus Michael O’Sullivan, now at the University of Auckland, likes to say his business is the “science of decision-making,” and that expertise paid off handsomely in his native New Zealand’s successful response to COVID-19.

O’Sullivan pivoted his knowledge of computer modeling, usually reserved for optimizing business processes, to help predict how quickly the disease might have spread through the island nation’s 5 million inhabitants, and to gauge various national response strategies. Based on expert models from a team of researchers that included O’Sullivan, New Zealand’s leadership took an aggressive approach and quelled the disease after just a month of lockdown.

O’Sullivan tells Stanford Engineering’s The Future of Everything he is now turning his attention to highly detailed geographic models to better understand how COVID-19 could spread geographically if a future outbreak occurs. He is also putting his modeling to work to help analyze how response to the disease will impact the coming flu season and how the lockdown might have had negative effects on the treatment of other illnesses such as the early detection of cancer. 

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Michael O’Sullivan, MS ’97, PhD ’01, would like to acknowledge the work of Kevin Ross, MS ’01, PhD ’04 (Precision Driven Health), and Pieta Brown (Orion Health), who have been instrumental in making a pipeline for the modeling work discussed in this podcast readily available to the New Zealand government.