The CDC is modernizing its approach to data, and this Northeastern graduate is leading the way by Cynthia McCormick Hibbert November 7, 2023 Share Mastodon Facebook LinkedIn Twitter Jorge Calzada, a Northeastern graduate, is the newly appointed head of Machine Learning/Artificial Intelligence at the CDC’s inaugural platforms division Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University As the head of the new platforms division at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Northeastern graduate Jorge Calzada is charged with bringing health data from the era of fax machines into the realm of rapid delivery and analysis. “When a pandemic happens, you go from zero cases a day, or one case a week, to hundreds of thousands,” Calzada says. “You can’t throw enough people at this problem to handle all this data.” That’s where data and computer science come into play, helping to gather information faster and assist with trend analysis, Calzada says. A technology executive for two decades, Calzada was hired this spring to head machine learning and artificial intelligence and direct the CDC’s inaugural platforms division. The division is one of five in the newly created CDC Office of Public Health Data, Surveillance and Technology and will create new platforms and standards for data gathering and sharing. The goal of modernizing health data science, Calzada says, is to do a better job of tracking health trends and threats, as well as to assist disease forecasting centers, such as the one recently funded by the CDC at Northeastern. “Some of the problem with forecasting in the disease space is you don’t actually know what’s happening today,” he says. “There’s a lot of uncertainty. It’s like not knowing today’s weather but you’re trying to predict tomorrow’s weather in Boston.” “That’s the equivalent of what we’re facing in public health,” Calzada says. “A lot of the things that I’m doing are hopefully going to fix those fundamental issues so that people can start building more sophisticated models and do a better job of forecasting for the future.” Double Husky worked his way through college Calzada is no stranger to forging new paths. The oldest of six children born to Mexican immigrant parents in Southern California, Calzada is a first-generation college student. “My father worked at a car dealership for a very long time in their service department. My mother was primarily a homemaker. College was something I had to finance myself,” Calzada says. Northeastern turned out to be a perfect fit for Calzada. It gave him the flexibility of attending class after work at nights and on weekends through the College of Professional Studies, from which he obtained a degree in operations and technology with a minor in information systems. Calzada didn’t stop there. “I really enjoyed the minor in information systems, so I decided to go back and went to Northeastern’s College of Engineering to study information systems” for a master’s degree in the subject, he says. As a teenager Calzada had been interested in designing medical devices to make people’s lives better. “Instead, what life threw my way is that I got a lot of exposure to a lot of different fields,” Calzada says. The knowledge he acquired through his studies at Northeastern gave him the ability to see patterns across domains and different interdisciplinary fields, he says. “That actually made for great problem-solving capability,” Calzada says. First data scientist at National Grid During his more than 20 years as a technology executive, Calzada has headed the data science program at Cogito Corp., served as senior director of data science at Forrester and directed data science at National Grid. “I joined National Grid as their first data scientist. By the time I left, there were about 50 of us,” Calzada says. “Utilities are sort of weird in that they have assets that last hundreds of years. We had lines that Edison put in,” he says. The challenge was modernizing the utilities by taking them from the 19th to the 21st century, Calzada says. Among other things, he helped analyze who would adopt solar panels and when by using aerial imagery and LIDAR data on tilt angles of roofs. “We’re able to build a 3-D model of your roof and the sun it will get,” as well as the financial returns for installing solar panels, Calzada says. One of the biggest factors in people’s decision-making turned out to be whether their neighbors had visible solar panels. “It turns out you can model innovation, very much like an infectious disease. Both spread through exposure,” Calzada says. New challenge at CDC In his new role at the CDC, Calzada is tasked with helping to modernize the federal health agency’s approach to data. “The CDC has always had amazing global experts in disease and epidemiology. That has never been in question,” Calzada says. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed gaps in the CDC’s data infrastructure, particularly the inability to move data and to easily communicate case counts across county, state and federal lines, he says. Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, in her former role as head of the CDC, recognized the problem and moved to address the gaps with the formation of the Office of Public Health Data, Surveillance and Technology, Calzada says. The idea is to partner technologists like himself with public health experts to shorten the time to implement health care solutions, Calzada says. “How do we digitize everything? How do we share this information?” he says. “What I’m looking to do with machine learning is to help make the pipelines that collect and connect all the public health data more resilient,” Calzada says. He says the existing system has been patched together with duct tape because of historic underinvestment, resulting in the continued reliance on fax machines to deliver information ranging from immunization rates to laboratory test results. “My hypothesis is that machine learning is a wonderful tool that we can use to take out a lot of that manual intervention in order to make systems interoperable,” Calzada says. “You can try to make everybody pick one language or you can build a lot of translators. That’s what machine learning can do.” Calzada says that growing up, he made sure to be around people who shared his high aspirations for an education and career. “That rubs off,” he says. Calzada says he would advise fellow first-generation college students to remember they are not alone in their educational journey. “There’s so many people like us who have gone through this,” he says. “We’re eager to help. The first step is just to ask for help.” Cynthia McCormick Hibbert is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at email@example.com or contact her on X/Twitter @HibbertCynthia.