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This researcher is tracking COVID with help from Google

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A research team at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) has been working to make epidemiological forecasting as universal as weather forecasting. When COVID hit, they launched COVIDcast to develop data monitoring and forecasting resources that can help public health officials, researchers, and the public make informed decisions. 

Last month, CMU received $1 million from Google.org and a team of thirteen Google.org Fellows to work pro bono for six months to help continue building out COVIDcast. This was part of Google.org’s $100 million commitment to COVID relief

We caught up with Ryan Tibshirani, a research lead at CMU, to learn more about the project and what the Google.org fellows will work on. 

Tell us a little bit about yourself.  

I'm a faculty member at CMU, jointly appointed in Statistics and Machine Learning, and I’m very interested in epidemiological forecasting and tracking. In 2012, I cofounded Delphi centered on this topic with Roni Rosenfeld, Professor and Head of Machine Learning at CMU.  

What do you focus on most these days?

Since the pandemic began I’ve  spent all of my time on COVID-19 research. Delphi has quadrupled the number of researchers in just eight months and we’re laser-focused on COVID. Leading Delphi's pandemic response effort has been both a challenge—I've never done anything like this before—and a joy—the group is full of amazing people. 

How did you come up with the idea for COVIDcast? 

To back up just a bit: Roni and I formed Delphi in 2012 with the goal to develop the theory and practice of epidemiological forecasting, primarily for seasonal influenza in the U.S. We want this technology to become as universally accepted and useful as today’s weather forecasting. 

Our forecasting system has been a top performer at the Centers for Disease Control's (CDC) annual forecasting challenges, and last year Delphi Group was named one of the two Centers of Excellence for Influenza Forecasting. I like to think of COVIDcast as a replica of what we’ve done for the flu but better and faster.

Break it down for us, what is COVIDcast?

The COVIDcast project is about building and providing an ecosystem for COVID-19 tracking and forecasting. Our aim is to support informed decision-making at federal, state, and local levels of government, in the healthcare sector, and beyond. 

The project has many parts: 

  • Unique relationships with tech and healthcare partners that give us access to data with different views of pandemic activity in the U.S;

  • Code and infrastructure to build new, geographically-detailed, continuously-updated COVID-19 indicators;

  • A historical database of all indicators, including revision tracking;

  • A public API that serves new indicators daily, along with interactive maps and graphics to display them;

  • And lastly, modeling work that builds on the indicators to improve nowcasting and forecasting the spread of COVID-19.

A key element of COVIDcast is that we make all of our work as open and accessible as possible to other researchers and the public to help amplify its impact. We share both our data and a range of software tools—from data processing and visualization to sophisticated statistical tools. 

How will the Google.org funding and fellowship help?

This support will help Delphi expand our efforts to provide a geographically-detailed view of various aspects of the pandemic and to develop an early warning system for health officials, for example, when the number of cases in a locale are expected to rise. There will be more pandemics and epidemics after COVID-19. We want to be prepared, and we believe Delphi's work can help us do that. 

The Google.org Fellowship just kicked off. What are you most excited about?  

Everything! We're excited to embed all the Google.org Fellows—engineers, user experience designers and researchers, program and product managers—into our workstreams. We hope they can help accelerate our progress and introduce us to leading industry product and software development techniques. Each and every one of the fellows has special skills that will be put to good use. We can't wait to see what we can achieve, together. 

More broadly, what role does the tech sector play in COVID-19 response efforts? 

An enormous role. The tech sector is uniquely positioned to provide data and platforms that even governments can't provide. It also has the skills and experience to quickly assemble large-scale systems, in real time. Google has been extraordinarily helpful to us on all of these fronts.

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