Illinois students lend critical data help during pandemic

In its work with the World Health Organization and Pan American Health Organization, the university's CHIME team is getting the learning experience of a lifetime.
By: | July 30, 2020
Getty Images

Quickly collecting and disseminating accurate information is critical for those reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, many public health agencies and countries lack the resources to comb through the sea of relevant data that can show patterns, trends or offer additional guidance to constituents.

So, both the World Health Organization and its regional Pan American Health Organization are turning to additional experts in data science to help during the public health crisis, like those at the University of Illinois Center for Health Informatics (CHI).

Led by research scientist Ian Brooks, students at Illinois are lending support to the WHO/PAHO by performing tasks related to the pandemic in areas such as data analysis, mapping and modeling. In return, those students are getting incredible real-world learning experiences by working closely on the most important project of our generation: finding a cure for COVID.

On Thursday, the team at Illinois officially launched a partnership with software platform EduSourced on its mission called CHIME in Illinois (Center for Health Informatics Mobilizing Experts), which has been analyzing how countries are handling the crisis through their information systems so better-informed health decisions are made. Brooks says EduSourced gives his team a tool to further extend its learning while aiding a worthwhile cause.

“The EduSourced platform is a simple-to-use interface where we can easily connect students with projects, and provides an experiential learning experience that goes above and beyond what you can typically do in a classroom,” said Brooks, the director of CHI and leader of the CHIME effort. “Most of our students using EduSourced are master’s students retraining from other degrees to be data scientists.

“What better way to truly learn the analytical side of data than to actually work on projects that directly impact issues real people face? With the COVID-19 pandemic interrupting traditional classroom learning, it’s been a terrific initiative for us.”

Connecting to a crisis

The Center of Health Information has been collaborating with the WHO/PAHO since 2011. In 2019, it was designated as the Collaborating Center on Information Systems for Health.

Brooks’ work in data analytics and public health stretch back a number of years. Aided by a grant from the National Science Foundation, he and his team at Illinois have been working on a “smartphone based system for mobile disease detection” since 2015 and he has presented data on a number of global health issues where it is crucial, including the use of social media during the Ebola outbreak in 2018.

Back in early April, Brooks and Sebastian Garcia Saiso of the PAHO delivered their findings to the WHO from research on the ‘infodemic’ of social media during COVID-19. With the help of other stakeholders at Illinois, they uncovered that Twitter was a necessary pipeline for information from health officials in Italy during March, where the pandemic hit hard, but was being used only sporadically by health ministers in the Americas.

Seeing a need for organizations to provide clearer information and communication to the public, Brooks’ team offered up their services in having student volunteers assist in culling data on a larger mission.

For about six weeks, CHIME and the WHO/PAHO have been collaborating on various projects. In that time, students at Illinois have launched a tool aimed at giving local health departments real-time metrics on international coronavirus numbers and data. That information, from a variety of sources including social media, is helping agencies manage data at both the ground level and throughout the continent.

“These students have the expertise we don’t have, and being under the leadership of Dr. Brooks provides an additional value, due to his knowledge of PAHO and our work with the countries of the Americas,” said Marcelo D’Agostino, WHO/PAHO senior advisor.

Working with EduSourced also provides a much-needed assist on the current project.

“As countries around the globe continue to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, many are left a step behind because of the lack of resources in IT and data science,” says David Comisford, founder & CEO of EduSourced. “We’ve helped to close that gap by connecting those entities in need with Illinois students that possess those critical skills.”

A win-win for students

The CHIME initiative features undergraduates, graduate students and Ph.D. students, many of whom already have necessary skills or experience working for companies such as Google or Microsoft through positions or internships.

For any projects related to COVID-19, students combine efforts in groups of 3-5 and work for two days to two months, depending on the job. Specific tasks focus primarily on analysis – everything from “social media discussions to epidemiology data visualization to data cleaning and management.”

One of the biggest benefits of the program for students is the project-based experience. They gain professional development skills while working closely with a faculty member and the organization.

“These projects are not internships where students are doing menial tasks. They are honing their skills in a meaningful, real-world scenario and making an incredibly positive impact on other communities while doing so,” Comisford said.

Another plus is the ability for students to break out of a traditional mode of learning during a time when remote work is becoming the norm.

“With the uncertainty of the upcoming school year due to COVID-19, project-based learning will be more critical than ever before to ensure students continue to evolve as they prepare to enter the workforce,” said Comisford. “Schools are growing their project-based learning programs to meet the student and employer demand for work-readiness upon graduation. Nearly half of the 91 schools we surveyed this year now have an office or a director of experiential learning. As these new offices form, a tool is needed as a central online repository for all of this activity.”


Chris Burt is an editor and reporter for University Business magazine. He can be reached at cburt@lrp.com


Interested in technology? Keep up with the UB Tech® conference.