With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, many public health organizations have found themselves overwhelmed by the need to make fast, data-focused operation decisions, but often they do not have enough staff with the necessary data science skills. The University of Illinois, meanwhile, has a diverse student population with strong technical skills and professional expertise who would like to help combat the pandemic but do not know how to get involved.
To bridge this gap, the Center for Health Informatics (CHI), under the direction of iSchool Research Scientist Ian Brooks and in collaboration with the World Health Organization/Pan-American Health Organization (WHO/PAHO), has developed the CHI Mobilizing Experts in Illinois (CHIME in Illinois) initiative. Through this new international public health initiative, agencies who have identified specific technical and informational needs are matched with teams of University of Illinois students with the necessary skills and experience to work on their projects, all under the supervision of CHI-affiliated faculty.
In one recent collaboration, students are working with public health officials from PAHO to create a tool that will increase access to and usability of international COVID-19-related health metrics. The tool will offer a web interface that draws on updatable data sources, delivering a holistic view of the continent as well as current localized information. That evidence can then be used to mobilize and strengthen existing information systems and to support requests for increased funding.
One of the students involved in the project, Siyao Zhang, a junior majoring in community health, noted that the initiative gave her the chance to combine her data analysis skills and community health coursework.
"CHIME projects not only allow me to use what I've learned in the classroom in real life but also give me an opportunity to make a real impact during this difficult time," said Zhang.
Public health officials similarly appreciate what they gain from the partnership.
"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.
D'Agostino would recommend the program to other agencies, especially those looking for innovative solutions related to big data analytics for public health.
Researchers at CHI, meanwhile, continue to gather information from potential student volunteers and work to pair them with new projects. For more information, including how to get involved, please visit the CHIME in Illinois website.