IST students gather information to help inform emergency management officials

Jessica Hallman
April 01, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A group of students in the College of Information Sciences and Technology are using their collective knowledge and skills to help inform Penn State emergency management officials during the evolving global coronavirus outbreak.

Under the direction of Nick Giacobe, assistant teaching professor of information sciences and technology, students on the Coronavirus Open Source Team are advancing a variety of information-gathering projects that collect and refine publicly-available information related to how institutions of higher education are responding to the pandemic. Ultimately, the information potentially could help Penn State administrators and local emergency managers benchmark with other institutions to guide decision-making.

“This is a great opportunity for students to contribute in a positive way to the coronavirus response,” Giacobe said.

Student teams are working around the clock on potential research projects that include: building and maintaining a comprehensive database of the actions of universities nationwide; documenting open source reports; and developing web tools that could help compile the massive amounts of data. The teams virtually meet each day to debrief and share their research findings and goals for moving forward. They also prepare daily BLUF reports – a military publication acronym for “bottom line up front” — designed to inspire speedy decision-making by incorporating important recommendations at the beginning of the text.

One group of students is responsible for maintaining a database of the actions and activities of more than 800 U.S. colleges and universities to measure their responses to the outbreak. The students record online findings and track activity, such as each institution's move to remote learning, commencement modifications, and potential summer session adjustments. The results are reported daily to the FEMA Disaster Resistant Universities (DRU) Working Group.

Timothy Nevil, class of 2023, majoring in security and risk analysis, leads the database team and said the work helps to provide Penn State and community leaders with information that could be useful in developing responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“[Our work] allows decisions to be made with the best interests of the health and well-being of students, faculty and staff at the forefront,” he said. “The building of the national list is also allowing us to assist institutions nationwide by providing information as to what other schools in their regions and across the country are doing through the Disaster Resistant University system.” 

Emergency managers from across the country use this data to help benchmark their school’s action plans on the activities of peer institutions. Pamela Soule, planning manager at the office of emergency management and planning at Penn State, said that her team has greatly benefited from the students’ efforts.

“Having all of this information in one place is invaluable,” she said. “The database saves time in gathering decision-making information and the BLUFs are an excellent resource for our daily situation reports.”

Other teams bring concepts learned through the College of IST’s security and risk analysis program to the project. These students focus on researching the impact of coronavirus on several topics, such as the national and international perspective, misinformation, and cybersecurity, by reading and contextualizing the news.

On one of these teams, Vincent McGee, class of 2020, majoring in security and risk analysis, is studying the pandemic’s impact on Pennsylvania and the northeast region of the U.S. He hopes that the work can help to inform leaders with the most up-to-date information during the rapidly evolving pandemic.

“I knew that my emergency management colleagues would find this data useful and daily information briefs helpful,” said Giacobe. “Additionally, I know our students are always looking for creative projects to build their resumes.”

For Nevil, the project has not only given him a chance to put his academic knowledge to practice, but it has also given him a sense of personal satisfaction as he works to make a positive impact during the coronavirus outbreak.

“I am proud to say during these trying times that I attend Penn State and am a part of a network across the globe that is dedicated to combating this virus," he added.

Last Updated April 02, 2020