To know exactly when, where and for how long a tsunami would affect T&T would be worth millions of dollars to businesses, government and civil society. Through computer-generated simulation, it is possible to have a near 100 per cent accurate enactment of a tsunami and other natural disasters.
With the help of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) ocean scientist, this is what returning national and Yale-graduated numerical analyst Nigel Henry, is attempting to sell to the Office of Disaster Preparedness & Management (ODPM).
"Solution by Simulation uses computer modeling to basically probe, and bring insight and solutions to political, economic, and social contexts," Henry said. Solution by Simulation is the same (and only) company that accurately predicted the outcome of the Tobago House of Assembly election, published in the January 14 edition of the Guardian.
"We use simulations in order to solve real problems," he said. "The Office of Disaster Preparedness Management is doing a simulation of a hypothetical tsunami originating off the coast of Aruba on March 20 (2013). The earthquake starts at 9 am and the tsunami hits T&T slightly after 11 am. I am partnering with an MIT ocean scientist (Legena Henry) and we are giving them what we call a tsunami-inundation model. What that does is that it predicts, using computer simulation, exactly when, where and for how long the tsunami will affect each community in Trinidad."
The company will simulate the evacuation of persons, the movement of the transport systems, the sea as it comes in and leaves the island and the overloads that the emergency response systems would suffer.
"What computer simulation can do is that it can essentially run a hypothetical experiment, without actually doing it in real life. So with this particular model, what we're trying to do with the ODPM is have an interplay between their systems and their reactions in terms of making the various calls of protocols, feeding back into our computer models, modeling that over a wider scale and then informing the human simulation, and going back and forth like that."
Unfortunately, however, Henry said he received a letter from the ODPM saying it wants the simulation done but does not want to pay for it.
He said this is an illness with which many companies and organisations in T&T are infected. They want the information but they do not want to pay for it, he said. Asked why he thought this is so, Henry said they may need help making the link between information and the bottom line.
The bottom line?
"As experts in modeling the complex effects of human behaviour, we could see what is the logical consequence, or the simulated consequence of many complex interactions in situations where you may not be able to do the experiment," he said.
"Let's say the government wanted to initiate a certain programme. If it is a complex programme, like one thing leads to another that leads to another, and you know the rules, you have a certain sense of how the minute actors might react, but you wouldn't know what the effect on the global system would be. We can use a computer simulation to model that, so then you can see what the global or macro outcome is, based on assumptions made using the small interactions between individual agents which are usually human beings," he said.
He said it is similar to doing market research before launching a product and spending millions of dollars on marketing and distribution. To make sure that money is not wasted behind something that would not work or would not sell, businesspeople do market research.
"We simulate, using a computer simulation," he said.
The only one of his Ivy-league educated siblings to return to T&T to contribute to the development of the country, Henry said he does not purport to replace market researchers, but provides more in-depth analysis and magnitude to their work. He said, for example, the results of a focus group could be taken and amplified to find out, based on the responses from 10 sample persons, what might be the effect if 10,000 people were involved. "From what we know on a small scale, we can use a computer to calculate what will occur on a wider scale," the 32 year old said.
He believes that if T&T had a culture of statistics and numerical analysis like the United States, birthplace of his company Solution by Simulation, it would make a big difference to businesses. "They would make fewer errors," he said.
Statistics benefit everyone
Henry started Solution by Simulation in 2008, and for most of the company's lifetime, served US politicians.
At "the US equivalent of the Central Statistical Office (CSO), the US Census Bureau, and the Department of Commerce, all they do is crunch numbers, and they are very well funded and every month they come out with estimates of retail sales, so the businesses get to 'free ride' off the government-funded polls because they are for everybody's benefit," he said. The US government understands it is to the benefit of all people if businesses have access to reliable statistics.
"In a sense, I guess the businesses don't want to put out their money themselves. Maybe it actually takes state funding in order to push it," he said. The chambers of commerce can also step up, if the government is not funding data collection, Henry said.
"Businesses should be able to get together and pool resources to get these products, the statistics. The important ones, such as retail sales by sector, will benefit all businesses"
He noted that the US puts out retail sales figures every month. The US government also publishes its jobless claims and a host of other numbers every month.
Henry thinks the reason the chambers of commerce may be slow to produce numbers is that "the starting point is so far back that it will be very costly to build the foundation, to then continue." When it comes to statistics and numerical analysis, Henry said: "We are really far behind. They may not see it as financially viable," to first update the existing statistics on the country, and then maintain that and expand it.
He said that Solution by Simulation would like to get to the point where it just does what is called derivative modeling, but it is actually having to do the raw data, and come up with the polls ourselves. If we can't get an independent poll, we have to fund it ourselves and the cost of running a poll is in the range of five digits."
Analysing raw data
Henry said, "if you look at what has worked in other societies, the government will provide most of the raw data, and you will have the businesses and universities doing the analytics on it, which is what could sell."
The public, he said, whether it is the government, business leaders or universities, have not come to accept the power that numerical analysis can have, and where they accept it in theory, they don't want to pay for it.
He said the ODPM is "a classic example."
He said to a certain extent he doesn't mind if portions of his studies are given away to the public for free, if he were to benefit from public funding, but there are aspects that can be monetised and therefore reduce the taxpayer's burden.
Returning home to give back
Henry lived, studied and worked in the US for 12 years before he re-migrated to T&T about a year and a half ago. He said he came back as "it was always part of the plan to return to help build up the technological resource base of the country."
He grew up in Port-of-Spain, attending Bishop's Junior School and then St Mary's College. Both his parents are medical doctors. His father is a cardiologist and his mother is a family doctor. His brother is an anesthesiologist and sister, a family doctor as well. Henry's parents, who also reside in T&T, were also Ivy-league educated. He is also the only one in his family who did not pursue medicine.
Henry started off wanting to be a neurosurgeon. He realised he was more interested in neuroscience, so he transitioned to computational neuroscience, which is building computer models of how the brain works.
He also holds a master's degree in international politics from the Elliott School of International Affairs in Washington.
Going forward, Henry said his company will place greater emphasis on micro-targetting which is, in his words, "the use of demographic and consumer data to model (predict outcomes) at the individual level; who your potential customers will be, after doing your traditional market research."
"We will do cutting-edge marketing technology, such as micro targetting, which involves first doing the traditional market research to build a customer profile. Once that is done, the micro-targeter will build a statistical computer model of that profile, and be able to look at the population at large, with all its multi-faceted specifications, and then be able to point out those who will be your natural market, and then those who you will be able to educate to become your customers, and draw toward you, with a little bit of market education or persuasion."