NAU students create online coronavirus dashboard

A group of NAU Graduate students created a COVID-19 dashboard compiling information on cases, deaths, related events, as well as a letter formatted to President Rita Cheng and ABOR Sept. 26, 2020. (Screenshot by Madison Easton)

COVID-19 continues to impact the entire world and change daily lives. Of the pandemic’s many confusions, one aspect that is often difficult to understand is the number of cases and how to find reliable information on local case levels. Two graduate students at NAU recently created a new dashboard to help share information about cases as it becomes available, even when official health websites may not be up to date. 

The project was facilitated by Joanna Wheaton who graduated last spring from NAU with a degree in data analytics, and Mark Graebner, a master’s student in forestry with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. The dashboard is hosted by the University Union and the American Federation of Teachers (UUNA-AFT). Graebner described a disconnect between NAU and Flagstaff’s need for information, but a perceived lack of initiative toward publicizing these statistics from NAU leadership.

“There was a July 5 report that cautioned against reopening, and they went ahead with reopening,” Graebner said.

The project was developed by Wheaton and Graeber through the University Union of Northern Arizona and the American Federation of Teachers (UUNA-AFT). Graeber, a master’s student in forestry, with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, described a disconnect between the need for information about Flagstaff and NAU, but a perceived lack of initiative towards publicizing information from NAU leadership.

“If you’re an employee and have someone at home who is at high risk, NAU is not under obligation [to let you stay home], “Graebner said. “You have to go to HR [human resources] and get personal leave, and early retirement was pushed on some folks.”

Kimberly Ott, head of communications and media relations, noted that NAU President Rita Cheng has spoken of aggressively testing 13-14 percent of the campus each week. 

“NAU reports each week on the number of positive student cases (on and off campus), that we are managing that week,” Ott said. “These numbers are from campus health, as well as mitigating testing results.”

Trish Lees, community relations manager for Coconino County Health and Human Services, said every positive test goes through contact tracing, which gives the department an opportunity to understand case origins. 

The Medical Electronic Disease Surveillance Intelligence System (MEDSIS) is how the team accesses information. In an email statement, Lees described MEDSIS as a statewide system that allows both individuals and institutions to keep track of COVID-19 and other diseases. 

Wheaton and Graebner said they were compelled to take the information provided by county officials and other providers before compiling it in an understandable format for students and other stakeholders. In turn, the student researchers’ said they hoped that social distancing and other safety precautions could be finalized with more information to back them up.

“We decided ‘let’s make the data available,’” Graebner said. “We’re in a position for a personally responsible decision, and need info.”

Wheaton, described some of the metrics depicted in the tabs on the dashboard’s homepage: Cases, Deaths and Testing among them. It pulls from a variety of sources, including three-day average data trends from Johns Hopkins University, in addition to zip code data from the Arizona Department of Health Services. Wheaton said they try to collect data that people want, but do not necessarily have.

One issue that makes COVID-19 contact tracing and data collection difficult is when ZIP codes are used to denote case figures. Matthew Maurer, an epidemiologist for the Coconino County Department of Health and Human Services, explained that sometimes health officials did not receive addresses or phone numbers from the people getting tested, so the numbers were reported to Maricopa County’s health department. However, they were later found to be traceable to Coconino County residents. 

“I would like to reiterate that it is important to give address and phone numbers because it lets us go through the process much quicker,” Maurer said.

Wheaton noted that this exact issue with ZIP codes is part of what propelled her and Graebner’s desire to create the new dashboard. She elaborated that students will visit the free testing site at Fort Tuthill, and when they report their home ZIP code, the information counts toward that area and not for Flagstaff.

Graebner and Wheaton said that hopefully, the dashboard will get people to think more deeply about COVID-19 case statistics and the pandemic overall. The current difficulties for graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) is one situation they cited as a catalyst, with Graebner mentioning that GTAs sometimes struggle to get accommodations, even if they have chronic health problems and are high-risk patients of COVID-19. Similarly, Wheaton said GTAs who are immunocompromised are under documente, and they would likely have a hard time getting help through Disability Resources.

“I hope the wider conversation will be getting people to think of how to best protect themselves, and get people more interested in the situation.” Grabener said. 

More information about the dashboard can be found on the UUNA-AFT website.