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University of Louisiana at Lafayette researchers have developed technology that’s assisting city officials in New Orleans understand risks associated with economic recovery, and are expanding the project statewide thanks to a National Science Foundation grant.

NSF awarded UL Lafayette’s Center for Visual and Decision Informatics a one-year, $187,477 grant for the “RAPID: Visual Analytics Approach to Real-Time Tracking of COVID-19” project. With the grant, CVDI researchers will enhance its COVID-19 Resilient Economy Support Tool, or CREST.

CREST is a “dashboard” that was created for New Orleans in advance of Phase I of the reopening Louisiana’s economy in mid-May. Dashboards, which are also known as visual analytic tools, consolidate large amounts of data from many sources. The centralized information is displayed via tables, line charts, bar graphs and indexes. Businesses often use dashboards to measure market, industry or revenue trends.

University researchers’ CREST dashboard factors in COVID-19 elements such as infection and mortality rates in the city, and vulnerable populations. Infection risk by occupation and mobility patterns of commuters from “hot spots” were also juxtaposed with job distribution patterns and number of jobs by industry.

“CREST is designed to help public officials measure risks and rewards, and make informed, data-driven decisions about economic recovery. If businesses are closed, for example, infections decrease, but it’s also detrimental to the economy. So finding balance is crucial, and data-driven information is key to finding that balance,” said Dr. Raju Gottumukkala, director of research for the University’s Informatics Research Institute.

The IRI encompasses three research centers, including CVDI. Dr. Henry Chu, executive director of the Informatics Research Institute, said IRI centers, including CVDI, provide data that “offers solutions for communities in a range of areas, including health, public safety, cybersecurity, and disaster preparation and recovery.”

“CVDI’s research and implementation of the CREST tool is a great example as to how University researchers’ expertise in data science is benefitting society,” Chu said.

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell said “data, collaboration, and innovation” have been essential to the city’s response and recovery during the pandemic.

“Thanks to partnerships like the one with UL Lafayette, the city’s response to this virus is continuing to evolve as we continue to learn more,” Cantrell said.

UL Lafayette and Drexel University established CVDI in 2012 as an NSF Industry University Cooperative Research Center. It is one of the only centers in the nation that focuses on data science, big data analytics, and visual analytics.

Behrooz Shirazi directs NSF’s Industry-University Cooperative Research Centers program. He said “with no precedent by which to judge COVID-19 trends, the National Science Foundation believes it’s essential to support technology such as the CREST system.”

“It gives decision-makers a tool for ascertaining patterns and mitigating risks associated with COVID-19 during economic recovery,” Shiraz added.

With the NSF grant, which was awarded earlier this month, University researchers – including undergraduate and graduate students – will build a more comprehensive version of CREST.

Among a host of features and capabilities, it will provide real-time data from across the state, such as COVID-19 numbers from the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, and mobility patterns provided by private companies.

Social media tools to help officials gauge evolving public sentiment and perceptions will also be built into the system.

“Not much real-time, visual analytics exist related to COVID-19, so a tool like CREST is necessary for understanding how the infection might spread within communities and regions,” Gottumukkala said.

Dr. Ramesh Kolluru, the University’s vice president for Research, Innovation and Economic Development, said the CREST project falls in line with “a core component of the University’s mission, which is to conduct research that has a significant public impact.”

“In this instance, we are leveraging our expertise in data science to improve our economy as well as public health. Going forward, CREST will be beneficial for identifying where more testing and more contact tracing is needed and, when a vaccine is developed, where the vaccine will be most needed,” Kolluru explained.

Graphic credit: University of Louisiana at Lafayette