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A national health data infrastructure could manage pandemics with less disruption


A young man on a subway wears a mask
Using data to manage the spread of coronavirus means that work and everyday life could quickly resume. (Shutterstock)

If we did not know it before, we know it now: pandemics present dire threats to our lives, similar to climate change and nuclear proliferation. Confronting these threats requires social and technical innovation and the willingness to view potential solutions in entirely new ways.

As Canada struggles with calibrating its response to COVID-19, the limits of our existing crisis strategies are plain to see.

Political leaders are stuck between controlling the spread of the pandemic and resuming commercial and economic activity. How quickly should restrictions on confinement and social distancing be relaxed? And for whom? Their responses rely largely on the extensive use of personal protective equipment (notably masks), deployment of immunity tests and test-and-tracing technologies.

There are two problems with this approach: first, they are based on after-the-fact views of COVID-19’s spread. And second, this approach treats the pandemic as a medical problem.

Managing the unknowns

The facts of this virus are becoming clear. While it is hard to know who is infected given that many may be asymptomatic, we do know that the vast majority of those who become infected will not experience severe symptoms. Data from France show that if everyone gets infected, only approximately one per cent of the population will experience symptoms severe enough to require admission to an intensive care unit.

Instead of using the blunt instrument approach of designing public health policy for an entire population, would it make more sense to predict who would fall into that highly vulnerable one per cent group and then devote the state’s resources to protecting them. That way, those who are less vulnerable can continue about their lives, while those who are more vulnerable would be better protected.

Different perspectives

Governments are not following this path. They see COVID-19 as primarily a medical problem when it is really an information problem. If it were to be seen as an information problem, then potential solutions are possible. These solutions use advanced information technologies that have proven successful in other contexts.

Consider personalized prediction. Machine-learning models fed with vast quantities of health data, for example, could be trained to make clinical risk predictions. Public health leaders could use these prediction models to identify those who are vulnerable and who would need to be quarantined and prioritized for access to scarce medical resources, such as personal protective equipment, dedicated health support, free delivery of groceries and other necessities.

Personalized prediction, based on machine learning and artificial intelligence, has transformed businesses over the last 20 years. Netflix evaluates consumers’ characteristics and past choices to make personalized recommendations about what they might watch next. Amazon uses the same approach to recommend future purchases based on past spending behaviour.

A similar approach could be taken to measure individuals’ clinical risk of suffering severe outcomes if infected during a pandemic such as COVID-19. What would this look like if rolled out on a country-wide scale?

Each person would receive an electronic message with their clinical risk score, which would be derived automatically from their medical records and reflect how vulnerable they are to a particular virus. Those with predicted scores above a certain threshold would be classified as “severe” or “high risk.” They would be temporarily isolated and supported. Those with scores below a threshold would be able to return to a more-or-less normal life.

A young man with a mask works at a laptop.
Identifying and protecting the more vulnerable members of a population would enable the development of herd immunity, and a quicker return to work. (Shutterstock)

Data-informed policies

A personalized approach to clinical risk during a pandemic outbreak has multiple benefits. It could protect medical systems from being overwhelmed and communities from the economic pain of indiscriminate lock-downs. It could help build herd immunity with lower mortality — and fast. It could also allow a more targeted and fairer allocation of resources, from test kits to hospital beds. Unlike medical tests that are scarce, expensive and slow to deploy, a data-driven digital personalization approach could be applied quickly and is relatively easy to scale.

An approach based on data science and machine learning could also enable safer de-confinement at a much faster rate than current best practices. In one study, my co-authors and I used COVID-19 data from France as of early May 2020 to understand the public health policies regarding the enacting and lifting of restrictions intended to control the spread of disease.

Our simulations show that isolation entry and exit policies could be substantially faster and safer using personalized prediction models. Our simulations indicated that the complete lifting of COVID-19 restrictions could be undertaken in six months, with only 30 per cent of the population being under strict isolation for longer than three months — all without overwhelming the medical system. In contrast, using conventional methods, simulations indicated that the complete exit would take 17 months, and 40 per cent of the population would be subject to strict isolation for more than one year.

This ideal scenario may seem like a moonshot, but a simple version could be designed and rolled out fairly quickly. Governments can focus on the data and models that can be deployed for COVID-19. For example, age, body mass index and hypertension and diabetes data for each person — all of which can be assessed at a community pharmacy for everyone within weeks and applied to an individual’s health card — can be used to train models. Even with just this information, public policy can be much more targeted.

National data infrastructure

What would need to happen to implement this new model on a province- or country-wide basis? For one thing, a deep data pool. Training a machine learning model for a pandemic such as COVID-19 would require data on thousands of people who tested positive and were hospitalized for the virus. It would also require medical data for everyone else in the population, akin to the information dossiers that big tech firms such as Facebook or Netflix have on consumers.

This is why government commitment to building a robust health data infrastructure is so important. Unfortunately, in Canada as elsewhere, the state of electronic health records varies widely. Depending on the jurisdiction, records may be incomplete or difficult to access, and information may not be standardized. A commitment to address these shortcomings is paramount. Privacy protections and cybersecurity provisions would need to be developed and well communicated.

As COVID-19 shows, the upside of applying advanced analytical tools used successfully elsewhere vastly outweighs the downside of staying the course. The question is not whether countries can apply artificial intelligence at a health-system scale. It is already being used at scale for commercial purposes that hardly involve life-or-death issues. The question for policy makers is: Can we afford not to go down this path?The Conversation


Anton Ovchinnikov, Distinguished Professor of Management Analytics at Smith School of Business, Queen's University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Supporting research at Queen’s University

The Vice-Principal (Research) at Queen’s provides internal funding to help researchers accelerate their programs and engage in knowledge mobilization.

Queen’s University has awarded more than $1 million in funding to its researchers. Through unique competitions such as Wicked Ideas, Queen's Research Opportunities Fund, and national programs like the SSHRC Institutional Grant (SIG), the Vice-Principal (Research) is supporting researchers at all stages of their careers and across all disciplines – from discovering innovative solutions, to artistic production, and knowledge mobilization.

In its inaugural year, the Wicked Ideas initiative was designed to support research collaborations across disciplines tackling wicked problems, issues so multi-dimensional and complex that they require multiple perspectives to solve them. Some of the successful projects include exploring cleantech, Lyme disease, and microplastics.

Additionally, through the internal funding initiatives several grants were also awarded to Queen’s researchers who have pivoted their research to help confront COVID-19. These projects ranged from determinants of self-rated health, to understanding resilience and fragility, and the spatial implications of the Bank of Canada’s response to COVID-19.

“It is extraordinarily exciting to see the research ideas that are brewing here on campus, matched with the commitment we have to making things happen," says Kimberly Woodhouse, Vice-Principal (Research). "I truly look forward to the outcomes of these awards.”

Learn more about the 2020 recipients and the individual internal funds below. For more information on the research happening at Queen’s, as well as Queen’s researchers’ efforts to confront COVID-19, visit the Research@Queen’s website.

Wicked Ideas

The Wicked Ideas Competition is a Vice-Principal (Research) pilot initiative to fund and support research collaboration and excellence. Wicked Problems are issues so complex and dependent on so many factors that it is hard to grasp what exactly the problem is, or how to tackle it. Wicked Ideas are needed to solve these problems and demand the input of multiple disciplines with relevant practical expertise.

2020 Recipients

Investigator Project Title
David Lyon (Sociology) &
Dan Cohen (Geography and Planning)
Big Data Exposed: What Smartphone Metadata Reveals about Users
John Allingham (Biomedical and Molecular Sciences) &
Chantelle Capicciotti (Chemistry)
Design and Development of Novel Classes of Actin-Targeting Toxin-Glycan-Antibody Conjugates
Susan Bartels (Emergency Medicine) &
Stéfanie von Hlatky (Political Studies)
Peace Support Operations (PSO) in Countries Affected by Political Instability, Armed Conflict, and Insecurity
Joe Bramante (Physics, Engineering Physics and Astronomy) &
James Fraser (Physics, Engineering Physics and Astronomy)
Macro Coherent Quantum Transitions in Parahydrogen
Kevin Stamplecoskie (Chemistry) &
Cathy Crudden (Chemistry)
Immortal Solar Cells
Kerry Rowe (Civil Engineering) &
Fady Abdelaal (Civil Engineering)
Using Cleantech to Monitor Geosynthetic Liners in Frozen Grounds for Sustainable Development of Sub-Arctic and Arctic Mineral Resources
Graeme Howe (Chemistry) &
Philip Jessop (Chemistry)
Solving the Water-Removal Bottleneck in Sustainable Chemistry
Nora Fayed (Rehabilitation Therapy) &
Claire Davies (Mechanical and Materials Engineering)
SOCIALITE: An Emotional Augmentation System for Children with Profound Communication Disability
Laurence Yang (Chemical Engineering) &
Pascale Champagne (Civil Engineering)
Reducing the Greenhouse Gas Burden of Livestock by Harnessing Carbon-Neutral Algae to Produce Milk
Robert Colautti (Biology) &
Nader Ghasemlou (Biomedical and Molecular Sciences)
The E.D.G.E. of Lyme
Mark Daymond (Mechanical and Materials Engineering) & 
Suraj Persaud (Mechanical and Materials Engineering)
Materials Performance in Molten Salt Reactor (MSR) Environments Proposed for Advanced Nuclear Systems
Heather Castleden (Geography and Planning) &
Diane Orihel (Biology)
The Spirit of the Lakes and All Their Relations: Two-Eyed Seeing in Microplastics Research

Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Institutional Grant

Through its SSHRC Institutional Grant (SIG) funding opportunity, SSHRC provides annual block grants to help eligible Canadian postsecondary institutions fund, through their own merit review processes, small-scale research and research-related activities by their faculty in the social sciences and humanities.

Explore Grant

This grant supports social sciences and humanities researchers at any career stage with funds to allow for small-scale research project development or pilot work, or to allow for participation of students in research projects.

2020 Recipients

Investigator Project Title
Cynthia Levine-Rasky (Sociology) The Good Fight: Voices of Elder Activists
Theodore Christou (Education) Map Making and Indigenous History Education: Supporting Reconciliatory Education by Visualizing Canada’s Indian Day Schools
Heather McGregor (Education) History Education in the Anthropocene
Grégoire Webber (Law) Recovering the Good in the Law
Jennifer Hosek (Languages, Literatures, and Cultures) Cultures of Resilience and Fragility under COVID: Does Money Matter?
Leandre Fabrigar (Psychology) Exploring Objective and Subjective Measures of Attitude Bases
Dan Cohen (Geography and Planning) The Spatial Implications of Bank of Canada’s COVID-19 Response
Richard Ascough (Religion) Associations and Christ Groups under Roman Colonization: Assimilation and Resistance in the Western Provinces
Gabriel Menotti Miglio Pinto Gonring (Film and Media) Audiovisual-made Museums: An Archaeology of Video as an Exhibition Platform
Danielle Blouin (Emergency Medicine) Accreditation of Medical Education Programs: What are the Effective Components?
Heather Macfarlane (English Language and Literature) How to be at Home in Canada: Literary Land Claims in Indigenous and Diaspora Texts
Sergio Sismondo (Philosophy) Epistemic Corruption
Collin Grey (Law) Humanitarianism and Deportation
Martha Munezhi (Policy Studies) Determinants of Self-rated Health in the Midst of COVID-19
Ian Robinson (Film and Media) Film and Placemaking
Ruqu Wang (Economics) Modeling International Trade Disputes
Marcus Taylor (Global Development Studies) Sustainability Transformations in Eastern Ontario Agriculture
Alison Murray (Art History and Art Conservation) Teaching Science to Art Conservation Students: Threshold Concepts as a Revitalizing Tool
Amanda Ross-White (Library) Predatory, Deceptive or Imitation: What Motivates Publishers and Editors on the Margins of Scholarly Literature?

Exchange Grant

This grant supports the organization of small-scale knowledge mobilization activities in order to encourage collaboration and dissemination of research results both within and beyond the academic community, as well as allow researchers to attend or present research at scholarly conferences and other venues to advance their careers and promote the exchange of ideas.

2020 Recipients

Investigator Project Title
Elizabeth Brule (Gender Studies) Indigenous Resurgence, Decolonization and the Politics of Solidarity Work
Elizabeth Anne Kelley (Psychology) Utilitarianism: A New Strengths-Based Approach to ASD

Queen’s Research Opportunities Funds

QROF represent a strategic investment in areas of institutional research strength that provide researchers and scholars opportunities to accelerate their programs and research goals.

Catalyst Fund

This fund was created to enhance areas of research excellence that are of strategic importance to the university by giving scholars an opportunity to accelerate their research programs. Ten awards were allocated with a minimum of six awards designated for Early Career Researchers, defined as those who are within 10 years of their first academic appointment. Applicants were required to hold Tri-Council funding or have applied for Tri-Council funding within the last two years.

2020 Recipients

Investigator Project Title
Grégoire Webber (Law) Human Goods and Human Laws
Meredith Chivers (Psychology)

Racializing and Diversifying Sexual Response: The Effects of Racial Identification, Emotional Appraisal, and Racial Bias on the Physiological and Psychological Sexual Responses of Black and White Women Viewing Racially Diverse Erotic Stimuli

Grace Adeniyi-Ogunyankin (Geography and Planning) Started from the Bottom: Youth Social Mobility and Affective Labour in Ibadan, Nigeria
Vicki Friesen (Biology) Using Whole Genome Sequencing to help Protect the Potential of Wildlife to Adapt to Changing Arctic Ecosystems, Focusing on Species Important to Indigenous Subsistence and Culture  
Chantelle Capicciotti (Chemistry) Targeting Cancer Glycans with Imaging Probes - New Frontiers to Chemically Map Tissue Surfaces
Jennifer Day (Geological Sciences and Geological Engineering)

Investigation of Sea Stack Stability in Popular Geotourism Destinations, Prediction of Their Structural Collapse, Evaluation of the Effects of Sea Stack Collapse on Public Safety, and Forecasting Risk Associated with Climate Change Evolution

Nader Ghasemlou (Anesthesiology & Perioperative Medicine, Biomedical & Molecular sciences) Circadian Control of Pain and Neuroinflammation
Eun-Young Lee (School of Kinesiology and Health Studies) Knowledge into Action: Development of Carbon Footprint Equivalences that Incorporate Lifestyle Behaviours for Dual Benefits of Environmental Sustainability and Human Health
Susan Bartels (Emergency Medicine) Improving Emergency Department Care Experiences for Equity-Seeking Groups in Kingston: A Mixed Methods Research Study
David Maslove (Critical Care Medicine & Medicine)

Deep Learning Applied to High-Frequency Physiologic Waveforms for the Detection of Atrial Fibrillation in Critical Illness

Arts Funds

This fund makes an institutional commitments in support of artistic production and expression that strategically align with the university’s scholarly strengths and priorities. This includes supporting artists, their contribution to the scholarly community and to advancing Queen’s University. The Arts Fund is also intended to attract outstanding artists to Queen’s University each year.

Artistic Production

This fund assists in the actual production of a work of art, such as the creation of a piece of visual art; the writing of a novel, poem, play or screen play; the composition of music; the production of a motion picture; the performance of a play, a musical composition, a piece of performance art, or the production of a master recording.

2020 Recipients

Investigator Project Title
Gabriel Menotti Miglio Pinto Gonring (Film and Media) Hollow Constructions
Matthew Rogalsky (Film and Media) Highly Directional Loudspeakers: Research and Development for Distanced Sound Performance and Installation

Visiting Artist in Residence

To enrich the cultural life of the university and to encourage exchange between artists at Queen’s University and the broader community. It is intended to provide educational and scholarly opportunities for artists by facilitating the extended presence on campus of visiting artists. Residencies are normally two to eight weeks in duration.

2020 Recipients

Investigator Project Title
Carolyn Smart (English Language and Literature) Writer-in-Residence for Queen's University: Kaie Kellough
Juliana Bevilacqua (Art History and Art Conservation) Rosana Paulino: Project North-South Dialogues
Karen Dubinsky (Global Development Studies) Cuban Roots in Canadian Soil: Canada's Cuban Musical History

Research community town hall scheduled for Aug. 27

The Vice-Principal (Research) Kimberly Woodhouse will host a Zoom town hall meeting on Thursday, Aug. 27 at 1:30 pm for members of the Queen’s research community. This forum will allow researchers to ask questions, and importantly, stay connected to the wider research community. While there will be an opportunity to actively ask questions during the town hall, for efficiency researchers are encouraged to send questions and concerns in advance to research@queensu.ca with the subject line “Town Hall Question”.

Please register in advance for this meeting no later than 12:30 pm on Thursday, Aug. 27, using your Queen’s or KHSC email address. After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about how to join the meeting.

Note that the event will be recorded to confirm that appropriate follow-up can be made with participants, if necessary.


Researcher contributes to WHO maternal health guidelines

New research from Queen’s University helps inform World Health Organization guidelines related to maternal nutrition during pregnancy.

Queen’s University researcher Bahman Kashi (Economics) has contributed to new World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines related to maternal nutritionHis research into cost-effectiveness analysis of alternative supplementations during pregnancy informed the 2020 WHO antenatal care guidelines, which supports public health policy globally. 

One of the ongoing questions around nutrition during pregnancy is related to transitioning from long-standing iron and folic acid supplementation (IFAS) to multiple micronutrient supplementation (MMS) to improve maternal and neonatal health. While IFAS only contains iron and folic acid, MMS includes iron, folic acid, and several other vitamins and trace minerals. MMS was proposed as a potential way to improve the nutritional profiles of pregnant women to reduce the risks of nutritional deficiencies on maternal and neonatal health. However, due to concerns regarding MMS's potential harms to newborns the World Health Organization's 2016 prenatal care guideline did not recommend transitioning from IFAS to MMS. 

Since the release of the 2016 guideline, emerging evidence suggests that MMS may be appropriate in low and middle-income countries. However, in addition to the concerns regarding potential harms, there were uncertainties regarding the cost and ultimate cost-effectiveness of MMS. Limestone Analytics, a Queen’s spin-off company led by Dr. Kashi, and Nutrition International conducted research to close these knowledge gaps. The analysis included evaluating the effectiveness of IFAS compared to MMS, comparing the costs, and calculating the cost-effectiveness of transitioning from IFAS to MMS. The analysis relies on publicly available data on health indicators, systematic reviews, and supplement costs. The main contribution of the study is the development of a model that allows for aggregating the impact on different health outcomes into one measure of effectiveness.

“A global policy shift on the choice of nutrition during pregnancy has the potential to improve the health and lives of millions of women and children around the world at a negligible cost," says Dr. Kashi. "For such a shift to happen, it is not only enough to collect an evidence base, but there is also the need to translate it through research into clear decisions. This research primarily focused on using the existing evidence to bridge the knowledge gaps and made the policy shift a possibility.”

The analysis was a critical component in informing the WHO's 2020 antenatal guideline, where the WHO position regarding MMS shifted from "not recommended" to "recommended in the context of rigorous research." This provides a path forward regarding the use of MMS and highlights the areas for future research. 

Two Queen’s University alumni, Zuzanna Kurzawa and Caroline Godin, were also a part of the research team. Godin's participation in this research was through a Mitacs internship, highlighting the importance of industry-academic partnerships facilitated by the Queen’s Partnerships and Innovation, and initiatives such as Mitacs.

Funding tools for exceptional research

Eighteen researchers at Queen’s University receive funding from the CFI’s John R. Evans Leaders Fund.

Queen’s University has been awarded over $2.8 million in funding in the latest rounds of the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s (CFI) John R. Evans Leaders Fund (JELF). The money will help fund 18 projects at the university. 

The John R. Evans Leaders Fund helps exceptional researchers at universities across the country conduct leading-edge research by giving them the tools and equipment they need to become leaders in their fields. 

The funding will help support research in a diversity of areas, including plant reproduction, Northern geological environments, wearable technologies and intelligent mining systems. 

“Cutting-edge research requires infrastructure and tools,” says Kimberly Woodhouse, Vice-Principal (Research). “This support will allow researchers at Queen’s to garner and build the resources they need to accelerate their programs and establish competitive advantages in their fields.”  

The projects receiving funding are:

  • Jannice Friedman (Biology) - Evolutionary Genetics of Plant Reproductive Strategies, $130,000
  • Matthew Leybourne (Geological Sciences) - Advancing Detection Limits and In Situ Isotopic Chemical Chromatography for Astroparticle and Geochemical Research, $200,000
  • David Natale (Biomedical and Molecular Sciences) - Stress-mediated Trophoblast Proliferation: Adaptation or Pathology? $100,000
  • Robert Way (Geography and Planning) - The Northern Environmental Geoscience Laboratory, $100,000
  • Che Colpitts (Biomedical and Molecular Sciences) - Membrane Remodelling by Positive-sense RNA Viruses: Molecular Mechanisms and Cellular Responses, $150,000
  • Tricia Cottrell (Cancer Biology and Genetics) - Characterization of Immunological Mechanisms Underlying Evasion of Checkpoint Blockade in Non-small Cell Lung Cancer, $200,000
  • Graeme Howe (Chemistry) - Elucidating the Evolutionary Enhancement of Enzymatic Efficiency, $144,000
  • Shideh Kabiri Ameri (Electrical and Computer Engineering) - Nano-materials-based Wearable Sensors and Electronics:  Achieving Superior Performance and Visual Imperceptibility, $100,000
  • Lynne-Marie Postovit (Biomedical and Molecular Sciences) - Research Center to Study Cancer with Single Cell Resolution, $240,000
  • She Zhe (Chemistry) Visualizing Soft Surfaces using Scanning Probe Microscopy, $180,000
  • Elisabeth Linn Steel (Geological Science) - Source to Sink Transport Dynamics: Exploring Evolution of Deltaic and Deepwater Systems through Physical Modelling, $75,000
  • Jianbing Ni (Electrical and Computer Engineering) - A Secure and Privacy-preserving Edge Caching Framework in Next-generation Mobile Networks, $125,000
  • Yuksel Asli Sari (Robert M Buchan Department of Mining) - Intelligent Mining Systems and Mine Automation, $125,000
  • Sameh Sorour (School of Computing) and Sidney Givigi (School of Computing) Advancing Edge, Cyber-physical, and Autonomous Systems for Smart Infrastructure, $400,000​
  • Jeffrey Wammes (Psychology) Investigating Representational Reorganization in Memory, $100,000  

CFI also partners with the Tri-agency Institutional Programs Secretariat’s (TIPS) Canada Research Chairs (CRC) program and Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERC) program through the John R. Evans Leaders Fund to create competitive packages for the funding of infrastructure and research support. Queen’s has received funding for three CRC-JELF projects: 

  • Amber Simpson (School of Computing and Biomedical and Molecular Sciences) Computational Phenotypes of Cancer, $76,000
  • Ning Lu (Electrical and Computer Engineering) Performance Evaluation of Networking/Computing Resource Management for Wireless Internet of Things, $150,000 
  • Anna Panchenko (Pathology and Molecular Medicine) - Decoding Cancer with Supercomputers, $235,550

For more information on the Canada Foundation for Innovationvisit the website. 

Don’t miss out on research funding opportunities, subscribe to the University Research Services Funding Opportunities listserv. 

How climate change could trigger ‘mega-tsunamis’

Damage caused by a tsunami at Lituya Bay, Alaska.
In 1958 a tsunami triggered by a landslide left a large swathe of damage in Lituya Bay, Alaska. (Alaska Earthquake Center) 

Just over 60 years ago, a giant wave washed over the narrow inlet of Lituya Bay, Alaska, knocking down the forest, sinking two fishing boats and claiming two lives.

A nearby earthquake had triggered a rockslide into the bay, suddenly displacing massive volumes of water. The large landslide tsunami reached a height of more than 160 metres and caused a run-up (the vertical height that a wave reaches up a slope) of 524 metres above sea level. For perspective, imagine run-up to about the height of the CN Tower in Toronto (553 metres) or One World Trade Center in New York City (541 metres).

Large landslides, like the one that hit Lituya Bay in 1958, are mixtures of rock, soil and water that can move very quickly. When a landslide hits a body of water, it can generate waves, especially in mountainous coastal areas, where steep slopes meet a fiord, lake or reservoir. Although mega-tsunamis are often sensationalized in the news, real and scientifically documented events motivate new research.

In late July, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake near Perryville, Alaska, triggered a tsunami warning for south Alaska, the Aleutian Islands and the Alaskan Peninsula. And scientists recently warned that a retreating glacier in a fiord in Prince William Sound, Alaska, had elevated the risk of a landslide and tsunami in a popular fishing and tourism area not far from the town of Whittier.

International research efforts are urgently underway to better understand these major natural hazards. This is critically important, since climate change could contribute to increasing the number and size of these events.

Recent giant wave events

Triggered by either an earthquake or higher than normal rainfall, another massive landslide occurred in Alaska in 2015. This one was in Taan Fiord, 500 kilometres east of Anchorage. This event was so powerful, it released an enormous amount of energy and registered as a magnitude 4.9 earthquake, approximately equal to the explosive force of 340 tons of TNT.

The landslide impact into the water was so strong that it generated seismic signals that were detected at monitoring stations in the United States and around the world. The impact generated a wave with a run-up of 193 metres. Thankfully, the area is remote and no one was killed.

However, the 2017 landslide into Karrat Fiord, Greenland, was deadly. It generated a 90 metre high tsunami at the impact site. This wave propagated 30 kilometres to the community of Nuugaatsiaq, wiping it out and killing four people. Other major landslide wave events have recently occurred in Norway and British Columbia.

Tsunamis are also generated by other mechanisms including earthquakes, volcanic collapse and submarine landslides. Earthquakes can trigger massive submarine landslides, which have been shown to be major contributors to the maximum tsunami run-up. This occurred when earthquakes struck Japan in 2011 and New Zealand in 2016, resulting in run-up of 40 metres and seven metres in each case.

Predicting the wave size

Large landslide tsunamis are difficult or impossible to measure in the field. They typically occur in mountainous regions with very steep slopes, and therefore are usually far from big cities. Geologists have documented many of the cases by mapping the run-up elevations or deposits of trees and rocks washed off slopes after these events, like in Taan Fiord.

In October 2015, a massive landslide fell into Taan Fiord and created a tsunami that stripped the land more than 10 kilometres from the slide. (Ground Truth Trekking), CC BY-NC

But these natural hazards pose a major threat to society. What if a landslide into a reservoir creates a wave that overtops a dam? This happened in 1963 in Vajont, Italy, killing more than 2,000 people who lived downstream.

A better understanding of how landslides generate waves is crucial. Experimental studies are a way to gain insight into these waves. Laboratory tests have led to empirical equations to predict the size of landslide tsunamis.

Recent research with detailed measurements using high-speed digital cameras is helping to determine the controls of the landslide properties on the generation of waves. This has led to new research at Queen’s University that has improved the theoretical understanding of how landslides transfer momentum to water and generate waves.

The wave size depends on the thickness and speed of the slide at impact. The shape of these waves can now be predicted and along with the wave amplitude (the distance from rest to crest), and be used as input to computer models for wave propagation and full simulation of landslide wave generation. These models can help understand and predict the behaviour of waves at the laboratory scale and at the field scale in coastal environments.

Past and future events

Since 1900, there have been eight confirmed massive wave events where large landslides have generated waves greater than 30 metres high. Two of these led to over 100 deaths in Norway in the 1930s. Of these eight major events, four have occurred since 2000.

However, other events with smaller waves have devastated more populated coasts. For example, the collapse of the Anak Krakatau volcano in 2018 generated a tsunami on the coast of Indonesia that caused over 400 casualties and major infrastructure damage.

Will more of these events occur in the future? Climate change could influence the frequency and magnitude of these natural hazards.

A warming climate certainly changes northern and alpine environments in many ways. This can include permafrost thawing, retreating glaciers and iceberg calving, more frequent freeze-thaw cycles and increased rainfall or other hydraulic triggers. All of these can contribute to destabilizing rock slopes and increase the risk of a major landslide into water.

These natural hazards can’t be prevented, but damage to infrastructure and populations can be minimized. This can be achieved through scientific understanding of the physical processes, site-specific engineering risk analysis and coastal management of hazard-prone regions.The Conversation


Ryan P. Mulligan, Associate Professor of Civil Engineering, Queen's University and Andy Take, Professor, Department of Civil Engineering, Queen's University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Redesigning Canada for physical distancing and COVID-19

People sit in circles in a park for social distancing.
Some cities are drawing circles in the grass at parks to ensure physical distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As Canada slowly re-opens during the COVID-19 outbreak, urban planners and politicians are working to re-configure their cities to adjust to life with physical distancing and reduce the spread of the virus.

City officials drawing large circles in the grass in parks to space people out and closing street lanes to create a wider area for people to walk, and stores dedicating the first hour of shopping to seniors and people-at-risk are examples of society adjusting to the new reality of COVID-19.

John Meligrana (MPL’91), a professor in the Department of Geography and Planning, has launched a study to discover the new policies and protocols that cities have successfully adopted. The research will be compiled in a report and shared with urban planners, politicians, and municipal leaders across Canada in the fall to help them re-open their towns as safely as possible.

While the world waits for a vaccine to be found in the next year or two, public health officials say physical distancing is one of the top weapons against COVID-19. Designing how thousands of people interact within neighbourhoods, buildings, and public spaces is what urban planners do, so Dr. Meligrana hopes his report can play a role in saving lives during the pandemic.

“We are all praying for a vaccine,” says Dr. Meligrana. “I am praying for all our first responders and praying for scientists to resolve this. But in the meantime, we need to rethink how we are using our cities. How do you achieve physical distancing in Canada’s most densely populated cities? That’s the question. That’s where we can contribute.”

The project is being funded by Rapid Response, a Queen’s project supporting research that contributes to the development, testing, and implementation of medical or social countermeasures to mitigate the rapid spread of COVID-19.

Dr. Meligrana has hired two grad students (Claire Lee and Stephan Kukkonen) and is working with two fellow Department of Geography and Planning faculty members (Patricia Collins and Ajay Agarwal) to research and complete the report by the end of October.

They plan to look issues at related to public places (such as parks and sports fields), transportation, and vulnerable communities that have been impacted harder than affluent communities.

Dr. Meligrana is already seeing emerging trends, such as a movement toward “quiet streets.” With fewer people driving, some cities are closing roads to create more room for pedestrians. It doesn’t always work. Kingston recently closed parts of two downtown streets, but re-opened them a few days later after a public outcry. These experiences can provide valuable lessons to city planners.

“We know there are a lot of these good ideas out there,” Dr. Meligrana says. “We hope to catalogue them, package them, and share them with as many people as possible. Planners can play a big role in making communities safer.”

How to calmly navigate personal interactions during COVID-19

Two men wearing masks speak with each other during an outdoor workout.
Across Canada, as we enter new, expanded phases of reopening and increased contact, we may feel uncomfortable interacting in person again. There are many options available. (Unsplash / Kate Trifo) 

Thanks to COVID-19, we’ve slowly built new routines centred on being at home. But as we start to enter various phases of reopening and increased contact, we may feel uncomfortable interacting in person again.

Treating each interaction as a type of micro-negotiation provides a helpful road map for navigating these potentially tricky situations.

What once were automatic interpersonal behaviours now require explicit agreement.

What do you do if someone enters the elevator with you without a mask?

If a friend rushes close to greet you?

If someone stands too closely in line?

What if you are (perhaps unintentionally) the offending party?

These situations are increasingly common and can escalate quickly into full-blown conflicts if not handled carefully. I draw on research on effective negotiations and conflict management to offer concrete suggestions and practical tips for how to ensure everyone walks away happy — and safe.

Overall, treating each interaction as a micro-negotiation first involves a change of mindset. Productive changes to your behaviour will then follow more easily.

It is important to note that many interactions won’t require all the recommendations below. But thinking about each in advance can help you be ready in the moment. A negotiation done well in this case may be one in which you don’t even realize you’ve successfully negotiated until after it’s over. Practice and preparation are key so that these tactics become second nature.

Prepare and have a plan beforehand

In negotiations, an important concept is what’s known as BATNA, which stands for the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. It is what you will do instead if you don’t reach agreement with your negotiation counterpart.

For daily interactions during the pandemic, this means you should have a clear idea in advance of what you will do if a situation gets too uncomfortable. Research shows that having a defined, desirable alternative in mind helps negotiators perform better; the psychological comfort of having an attractive backup plan helps you feel more powerful and removes unnecessary stress in the current moment.

Rather than storming away in a huff, or escalating a conflict unnecessarily, plan ahead and have explicit options in mind. For example, if mask-wearing doesn’t seem to be enforced in a particular place, know before you leave your home what you will do: you might get takeout from a different restaurant, order groceries for pickup or delivery or simply come back at a different time.

Having your alternative in mind will help you remain calm, knowing that you always have a perfectly acceptable alternative. In fact, research shows that simply feeling that you can handle a tense situation can help you avoid reacting unproductively.

A couple wearing masks descend concrete stairs.
Despite our best intentions, it is likely that some interactions may lead to strong emotions, even anger. (Unsplash / Cheng Feng)

Respect other perspectives, but be creative

Although it might seem inconceivable that someone may have a different comfort level in terms of interactions than you do, it’s bound to happen and doesn’t mean the other person is crazy. (In fact, they may be thinking you are the crazy one.)

A more productive approach is to try to understand the other person’s perspective, and how you can satisfy both of your underlying needs in a creative way. Separate the position (the behaviour, or the “what” that makes you feel uncomfortable) from the interest (the “why” of the behaviour).

For example, if you’re not comfortable attending the “small” get-together of friends that somehow grew much larger in number, that’s OK. Simply say so explicitly, but also suggest an alternative that could meet both your and the host’s interests (to connect with an old friend) in a different format (taking a physically distant walk together later in the week).

Remember that respecting the other person doesn’t mean you have to agree with their position.

But by being creative and focusing on deeper, underlying interests rather than more superficial positions, you can keep everyone happy.

Don’t take it personally, and use threats wisely

Despite our best intentions, it is likely that some interactions may lead to strong emotions, even anger.

However, rather than reacting angrily to a situation, which can backfire depending on how it is received, take a step back and reconsider the situation from an open-minded, problem-solving perspective.

Use the other person’s reactions and emotions as a trigger to help you find out what’s really going on at a deeper level, which research shows shows can help you reach a more mutually beneficial solution without having to simply give in to the other person’s demands.

If you feel that you need to resort to ultimatums, do so carefully and purposefully. Research suggests that WISE threats — those that you are willing to enact, that serve your underlying interests, that help the other person save face or maintain their dignity and that are exact rather than vague — are more likely to lead to effective conflict resolution.

Thinking about each interaction you have as a form of micro-negotiation will help you practise a few fairly minor behavioural and mindset changes so that you, and those around you, are more likely to have positive interactions and avoid unnecessary conflict.

It’s important to remember that we’re all navigating uncharted waters, and negotiating what used to be mundane but now feels uncomfortable may not come naturally. However, with conscious practice and an open mind, it’s possible to approach even the most challenging interactions from a productive problem-solving mindset.The Conversation


Laura Rees, Assistant Professor of Organizational Behaviour, Smith School of Business, Queen's University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Power professor: 100 patents and counting

Electrical and computing engineering professor Praveen Jain hits milestone of 100 patents of his research.

Preveen Jain shows off his lab
Praveen Jain (Electrical and Computer Engineering), a leading researcher in the field of power solutions, has surpassed 100 patents in his career. (Queen's University)

Patents do not just attribute intellectual property; they also recognize contributions towards scientific discovery and innovation. This is particularly true for Praveen Jain, a professor and researcher in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, with more than 100 patents to his name. Testament to his prolific contributions to the advancement of power solutions for an evolving world, Dr. Jain’s patents span the whole range of the power electronics field.

Originally from a small town in India, Dr. Jain recalls going to a school with only one teacher.

“I can remember much of my primary learning occurring sitting under a tree,” he says. “Many in my extended family were engineers, which later inspired me to study engineering.”

After completing his bachelor’s degree, Dr. Jain worked for two companies in India. One of his uncles, who had been mentoring him, suggested that he pursue higher education abroad, and in 1981 he was accepted to the University of Toronto as a graduate student. He completed his study focused on high-frequency power conversion, a topic that carved his future path.

Over the years, Dr. Jain explored power solutions in a number of different careers, beginning with Canadian Astronautics, where he worked on power systems for space applications, including the Canadarm2. This was followed by his employment at Nortel where he created many novel power solutions for telecommunications.

“I further developed my work on space power and applied that technology in telecom,” he says.

Making a difference

Since joining Queen’s, Dr. Jain’s work has spanned the field of power electronics, and included collaborations with peers and industry, as well as mentoring the next generation of researchers. He has founded two companies, CHiL Semiconductor in digital power control chips, and Sparq Systems Inc. in solar microinverters.

His research has been applied in more than 20 major engineering projects, demonstrating the breadth of his contributions’ significance. And his contributions continue: current research focuses on power electronics for smart micro-grids, renewable energy systems, electric vehicles, and information systems.

Consideration of Dr. Jain’s long-standing relationship with the former PARTEQ Innovations, now Queen’s Partnerships and Innovation (QPI), provides insight to this productivity. From 2008 to 2015, PARTEQ received numerous invention disclosures from Dr. Jain and his research group, based on their work with micro-inverters for renewable energy systems. During this period PARTEQ filed patent applications for 10 inventions, including three international patent applications under the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT). From those patent applications, 31 patents have been granted in Canada, United States, Japan, Australia, Mexico, China, and India, and three applications are still pending.

In the patent office of each country where a patent application is filed, the application is subjected to examination to confirm the invention is not only new but is not obvious in light of the closest prior work. 

Thus, “the grant of a patent attests to the significance of the contribution that the patent makes to its field of technology,” says Stephen Scribner, Director, Intellectual Property at QPI, who prepared and prosecuted these patent applications. 

As the director of the Centre for Energy and Power Electronics (ePower), Dr. Jain is collaborating with others to develop innovative solutions, and believes that distributed renewable power represents the future of energy systems.

“By the end of the century, I can see there being no electric grid, just distributed power,” he says. “We have important work to do to advance products and practices that will make better use of renewables and distributed systems that are more efficient, and better for our planet.”


This article is an adaptation of a piece written by Teegan Burks, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Sci ’21, for the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

To change coronavirus behaviours, think like a marketer

A couple wear facemasks and glasses
Wearing masks in public is the new norm, however, there remains some significant resistance and rates of COVID-19 infection continue to rise rapidly across the United States, as well as among Canadians aged 20-29. (Unsplash / Nathan Dumlao)

COVID-19 has been a humbling experience. From a frayed pandemic early-warning system to a shortage of personal protective equipment for front-line workers, public health experts have been playing catch up.

But it has also been a teachable moment. We now know, for example, that the usual approaches to convince fellow citizens to prioritize societal well-being over personal desires are not working. Rates of COVID-19 infection continue to rise rapidly across the United States, but also among Canadians aged 20-29. Public health messaging is clearly not convincing this age cohort to change behaviours.

This is a call to action for social marketing to evolve and leverage powerful behavioural and technological tools that successfully engage hard-to-reach groups. There is compelling evidence from here in Canada that such an approach can work.

Social marketing applies commercial marketing technologies to motivate voluntary social behaviour. These techniques have been used to boost home-based recycling, safe sex, to encourage people to quit smoking and use seat belts, among many other behaviours.

Good social marketing is more important than ever, particularly during a pandemic. In general, however, public health officials have been slow to adopt approaches that have been used successfully in the for-profit world.

The four Ps

In marketing, the shorthand for selling a product or service is “the four Ps”: product, promotion, price and place. Social marketing takes the perspective that selling an idea can be approached in the same way. This includes aligning and customizing messages to specific audiences, rather than assuming everyone will respond the same way.

In the case of COVID-19, data suggest that people don’t share the same perceptions of risk, and this can be seen in their individual behaviour and resistance to public health messages. Similarly, there is a mismatch between the audience and medium. The current approach of relying on traditional news outlets and advertising, media releases and news conferences to communicate critical COVID-19 information is not proving effective at reaching younger adults.

Think of the difference among law, public health and marketing as sticks, promises and carrots. During COVID-19, there have been lots of sticks and promises (“stay home, stay safe”) and not much in the way of carrots. But carrots are needed.

Being confined to your home is a fundamentally unpalatable product for people for whom isolation is a significant psychological burden. Families with small children that are struggling with working, teaching and general caretaking and need specific guidance on how to meet child-care needs safely. Everyone needs access to outdoor space for transportation and recreation, regardless of preferred activity, especially when those correlate with income and race.

At the outset, little attention was paid to recognizing and addressing these barriers to compliance with the desired behaviour. Yet we have a Canadian example of how to take a complicated issue and break down barriers, in the context of physical activity.

Worldwide leader

ParticipAction has been a worldwide leader for decades in presenting a range of possible activities that people can do in small bursts throughout the day or week to meet recommended guidelines, all without having a gym membership or being part of organized sports.

By recognizing barriers that prevented people from being active, it opened up possibilities to Canadians who considered the product and place of physical activity unattractive.

The social marketing version of price has always been the most challenging of the four Ps to tackle. It is difficult for individuals to change a behaviour they enjoy or one that provides personal benefit, especially when such change may not benefit them directly.

But the behavioural economic concept of “nudging” that includes small financial incentives has proven to be financially more efficient than expensive advertising campaigns in convincing people to change behaviour.

Our research on a now-defunct made-in-Canada mobile app demonstrates the potential for using cutting-edge commercial marketing techniques and technologies to tackle the challenges of social marketing.

Carrot Rewards was a mobile app that gave users points from their loyalty program (such as Aeroplan, Scene and Petro Points) immediately after they completed a health intervention, such as completing an educational quiz, getting information about the flu shot or walking a certain distance or length of time. (Carrot Rewards folded in June 2019 but was purchased later that year by a technology firm with a plan to relaunch the wellness app.)

A woman shops while wearing a mask.
Social marketing applies commercial marketing technologies to motivate voluntary social behaviour. These techniques have been used to boost home-based recycling and encourage people to quit smoking. (Unsplash / Arturo Rey)

Canadians love their loyalty programs

Loyalty programs are tremendously popular in Canada. Some 90 per cent of Canadians are enrolled in at least one program. Studies show that, on average, there are four programs per person and 13 per household.

Carrot Rewards leveraged the desire for small financial incentives (in the form of reward points for movies, groceries and the like), and attracted an engaged and involved audience.

It employed a digital platform that allowed for customizable content and high message complexity. Using multiple choice “quizzes” of five to seven questions each, it both involved users through gamification as well as provided additional information on the topic in question.

The app was also able to target content to specific audiences based on demographic characteristics and answers to previous quizzes, as well as track physical movement and location via a smart watch or smartphone.

Engagement stayed high

With an existing base of 1.1 million users across Ontario, British Columbia and Newfoundland and Labrador — and 500,000 active monthly users — Carrot could have quickly expanded into other provinces as a key component of an integrated federal COVID-19 campaign for education, contact tracing and possibly even symptom tracking.

Our research has demonstrated that Carrot rapidly attracted and enrolled users, and maintained consistently high levels of user engagement over time, even as rewards diminished. That engagement remained high even at a modest average reward per user of 1.5 cents per day. The age and demographics of the users varied by loyalty program, and the app provided a relatively representative cross-section of Canadian society in terms of education, income and urban/rural/suburban locations.

All in all, Carrot showed impressive results.

Financial sustainability challenges aside, policy-makers and public health officials would be wise to consider maintaining this modern, data-driven approach to social marketing in their tool box. It would not only prove tremendously useful in the COVID-19 era, but it would place Canada at the forefront of innovation in social marketing around the world.The Conversation


Monica C. LaBarge, Assistant Professor, Marketing, Smith School of Business at Queen's University and Jacob Brower, Associate Professor and Distinguished Faculty Fellow of Marketing, Smith School of Business at Queen's University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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