Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has awarded Te Pūnaha Matatini the coveted 2020 Prime Minister’s Science Prize* for their contribution to Aotearoa New Zealand’s globally-lauded COVID-19 response. 

The transdisciplinary Te Punaha Matatini COVID-19 modelling team comprises researchers and experts from across academia, Crown Research Institutes and industry, and includes Orion Health data scientists Pieta Brown, Dr Ning Hua and Dr Kevin Ross. 

The team was recognised for their tireless work in developing mathematical models, analysing data and communicating the results to inform the New Zealand Government’s response to the global pandemic. The results of this work were translated for Government policymakers and front-line operators. 

The modelling was key in helping the Government to make good decisions about lockdowns, particularly in April and May 2020, when the need to relax Alert Levels arrived and again, in August, when a tailored lockdown was used in Auckland to eliminate a large community outbreak. These public health interventions have had an immense impact on New Zealanders’ lives, preventing a considerable number of deaths if the virus had been allowed to spread. 

The team made sure their models served the health system by working with Orion Health data scientists to ensure information got to where it was needed. Due to the Data Science team’s experience working across New Zealand’s healthcare sector, they were uniquely positioned to offer technology and processes to support the modelling team’s efforts. In particular, Orion Health data scientists deploy and manage machine learning models for a range of clients in the healthcare industry, and were able to provide similar support to the TPM team in order to get the COVID-19 models up and running quickly, and to run regional scenarios as required. 

Orion Health data science engagement lead and Te Pūnaha Matatini Advisory Board member Pieta Brown is immensely proud of the work achieved by the COVID-19 modelling team. “It was a real privilege to work with such an amazing team of Te Pūnaha Matatini researchers to support Aotearoa New Zealand’s pandemic response,” says Pieta.

Dr Kevin Ross, Orion Health Research Director and CEO of Precision Driven Health, says the data science team connected with TPM researchers in the early days of the pandemic.

“We reached out to the Te Punaha Matatini team and offered our support and expertise in data science for healthcare,” says Kevin. “The work evolved organically from there, and it felt important for us to do our bit for Aotearoa’s ‘team of five million’.”

Ning recalls a period of intense activity in March, April and May 2020, with daily virtual meetings with the transdisciplinary research team. 

“We adapted and deployed the researchers’ models in our technology environment and ran and analysed large numbers of scenario simulations,” she explains. “We also produced standardised reporting and refreshed these daily or weekly, as required.” The team’s work was regularly cited in the now-famous daily 1pm media briefings, and Ning was acknowledged by Statistics New Zealand as being “a data scientist of national significance”. 

The work created by Te Pūnaha Matatini is open and transparent, with an accelerated alternate review process implemented during the pandemic to ensure agility in a fast-moving crisis so that papers and findings were communicated faster than traditional review processes allow.

Director of Te Pūnaha Matatini Professor Shaun Hendy said the Orion Health Data Science team was instrumental in the technical delivery effort supporting the COVID-19 modelling team’s work.

“Aotearoa’s pandemic response shows how powerful science and research can be, especially when scientists can collaborate without barriers and research is put into practice nimbly,” says Professor Hendy. “The team from Orion Health were a great complement to our academic researchers, putting our modelling into an operational environment, and maintaining master models and reports while we continued to adapt and improve.

“COVID-19 has shown us what is possible when researchers mobilise quickly and can communicate their findings openly and transparently,” he says.

Kevin Ross, Ning Hua and Pieta Brown

Pieta says the experience was unique in that the team were working with the realities of modelling a very complex and rapidly evolving situation, and learning in real time. 

“We saw the potential of a blended research team in action,” says Pieta. “It was thrilling to see how quickly we were able to deliver results when we could communicate and collaborate freely, and conduct research in real time.”

The Te Pūnaha Matatini COVID-19 modelling team is still going strong and Pieta, Kevin and Ning continue to be involved. The team intends to make their models and tools available so they can be maintained in perpetuity. In fact, two COVID-19 spread and effect models are already available to the public and analysts through Orion Health’s New Zealand Algorithm Hub. Te Pūnaha Matatini’s research publications are available on their website. 

“One of the exciting byproducts of this time has been increased collaboration and sharing through tools like the New Zealand Algorithm Hub,” says Kevin. “We now have a way for validated models to be deployed by data scientists, and used by clinicians and policy analysts. 

“The teamwork through COVID-19 showed us that evidence-based decision making is both possible and transformative”.

*The Prime Minister’s Science Prize is awarded for transformative science which has had a significant economic, health, social or environmental impact.