A multidisciplinary research team, headed by University of Wisconsin professor Song Gao, started analyzing travel and social media data to monitor the spread of COVID-19.

The team consists of a network of UW departments and UW professors, namely Life Sciences Communication assistant professor Kaiping Chen, Mathematics associate professor Qin Li and Director of the Global Health Institute Jonathan Patz.

In an email to the Badger Herald, Gao said the team is collaborating with the American Family Insurance Data Science Institute and the Global Health Institute at UW-Madison in supporting the needs of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. 

“The epidemic modeling teams can utilize such mobility information in building their predictive modeling of the virus spread,” Gao said. 

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Their project, titled “Geospatial Modeling of COVID-19 Spread and Risk Communication by Integrating Human Mobility and Social Media Big Data,” recently received a National Science Foundation grant of about $200,000 to provide key insight into the spread of COVID-19, according to UW news release

According to the release, this research will provide information about the extent to which the public is practicing social distancing, the transmission of the virus and possibly what the future holds, but the researchers do not have the ability to track and monitor individuals.

“We only have access to anonymized and aggregated mobility data and do not have individual data,” Gao said. “In addition, the research team has followed a de-identification process and protect user privacy.”

The public can access the county-wise mobility map at their website

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According to the release, the team’s data revealed the median mobility of people in Dane County was about six kilometers before Gov. Evers announced the “Safer at Home” orders, but the number decreased to almost zero in Dane County for about six days over the span of the past two weeks. 

Median mobility vastly increased in numerous counties during Wisconsin’s April 7 election, according to the release. Gao said the number rose from 1.1 kilometers April 6 in Waukesha county to 1.9 kilometers April 7, and to 4.5 kilometers from 2.7 kilometers in Lafayette county.

According to the release, it is difficult to say the election day was the only time when median mobility increased during the time the lab has been monitoring data. Gao said the mobility spatial patterns change over time and vary in different states and counties.

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The researchers are planning to look at social media posts — such as tweets on Twitter — by different government agencies, organizations and individuals, along with median mobility data, to paint a complete picture of the public’s response to the pandemic.

“We want people to take action to further prevent or mitigate the threat of the virus,” Gao said in the release. “Our development of a COVID-19 spread model will be community-centered, which incorporates community responses into both the model development and the model interpretation process.”