Stephen Wallace, Professor of Practice at the iSchool, agrees — especially when it comes to COVID-19. “Data is really at the heart of trying to understand the disease,” he says, “so we can take proactive action in order to contain it.”
Steve teaches courses in applied data science and natural language processing, so he knows a thing or two about building predictive models and using them in real-world applications. He mentions that, when it comes to using data to inform recovery efforts, dissemination is an integral part of the process.
Dissemination is the critical link between information and action, as was proven again during the rapid outbreak of COVID-19. Only after an effective educational dissemination campaign, Steve says, were policymakers able to take action and enact city-wide lockdowns. “If they had tried to do that first, it would have been a disaster.”
That point echoes sentiments Aarthe makes about the role data plays in informing action. While she leaves specific actions up to decision-makers, she says her team’s goal in the Datathon was to identify the highest-impact target areas. “The idea is to point them in the right direction,” she says.
That also speaks to what she sees as one of the most powerful uses for data science: it allows us to be more efficient and effective in our collective response to crises. “We’re not waiting for a disaster to happen to act,” Aarthe notes. That’s because data generates insights that enable policymakers and the public to make quick decisions in real-time.
As for Steve, he takes pride in Americans’ collective response to COVID-19. Early access to data and analysis demonstrated that our health care system would be overwhelmed if we did not act, which drove decisions to shelter in place. That’s kept the disease localized and helped stop the magnitude of the spread.
With ever-increasing access to data in the public domain, Aarthe reminds us that everyone can harness the power of data analysis to explore and find patterns, even if you don’t have a technical background. “You don’t have to know statistics in order to make a discovery,” she says. Given how many tools and resources are available, “you could be self-taught and discover something on your own.”
It was that attitude of humble discovery, like a detective on a mission, that allowed her and her team to win the Datathon and make a lasting contribution to the recovery effort. At the time of writing, Aarthe is working on publishing a co-authored paper about her findings that she hopes will help guide public policy.
“I just wanted to try something out,” she says. “It turned out to be such a valuable experience, and it showed me how integral data will continue to be in helping us recover from this crisis.”