Geographers bring expertise on geospatial data, modeling to COVID-19 research

Angela M. Rogers
May 22, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, PA. —  Penn State geographers are taking part in a variety of projects in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Helen Greatrex, Anthony Robinson and Erica Smithwick are among those receiving grants from the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences COVID-19 multi-institute seed grant fund for projects related to social sciences and predictive modeling. Todd Bacastow is convening focus groups within the geospatial intelligence community. Alumni Siddharth Pandey and Rachel Passmore are supporting state and federal responses.

Greatrex, assistant professor of geography and statistics, is collaborating on the project “Model-driven social distancing and resource allocation strategies for COVID-19 and other infectious diseases through an optimal control and data assimilation framework” with principal investigator Michael Norton, assistant research professor in the Center for Neural Engineering and Steven Greybush, associate professor of meteorology.

“For several years we have been looking at how we can provide better health advice, treatment and prediction for diseases like hydrocephalus that are not infectious, but may be sensitive to weather and climate,” Greatrex said. “We have a big group of epidemiologists, statistical modelers, surgeons, and public health officials around the world who already used to working together to develop tools that might be useful for COVID-19.”

It was an opportunity to repurpose a team, resources and expertise already in place, she said. The team is doing a lot of susceptible–infectious–removed or SIR modeling.

“It’s a simulation where you can mathematically model how fast a population might catch an infectious disease,” she said. “Then, you change the rules to see how that affects transmissions. Lots of people are doing this to see which different rules create peaks.”

The models are very complex, Greatrex said, and they are trying to work out if it makes sense to add weather and climate data to the SIR simulations. Part of that process involves conducting a systematic review of published papers that focus on COVID-19 and weather in order to answer questions like: Is there a significant link with relative humidity, for example, to warrant adding it to the model?

“The behavior of people may swamp a small weather signal,” Greatrex said. “Whether or not weather gets added to a SIR model, a silver-lining for future research, is that the U.K. Met Office — analogous to the U.S. National Weather Service — has made all of their global weather data available to the COVID-10 community so we are using world-class weather data.”

Robinson, associate professor of geography and director of online geospatial education programs, is collaborating on the project, “Measuring movement to prospectively manage COVID-19 resurgence,” led by principal investigator Nita Bharti, assistant professor of biology.

According to the project description, reported cases of disease are delayed indicators of underlying behavior, including movement, contact rates, transmission dynamics and real disease incidence.

The team will measure changes in movement and contact patterns within and between locations to assess their impact on the COVID-19 outbreak in settlements where the relaxation of early behavioral interventions presents an immediate risk of a subsequent wave of transmission. Monitoring movement indicators to guide preventative efforts is more effective than relying on epidemic data to inform reactive interventions.

“This project will bring together satellite data on nighttime lights, radio frequency emissions, nitrogen dioxide and infrared energy, alongside global population density estimates to see if changes in human behavior are observable at regional scales across space and time,” Robinson said. “This information will be coupled with epidemiological models to see if it may be possible to proactively guide behavioral intervention efforts based on observed changes in movement, rather than reacting to patterns in epidemic data to make those decisions.”

Smithwick, professor of geography, director of the Ecology Institute, and associate director of the Institutes of Energy and Environment, is collaborating with principal investigator Armen Kemanian, associate professor of production systems and modeling,  on the project, “Assessing food and environmental security during COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.”

According to the project description, the team will assess the impact of COVID-19 on Pennsylvania’s agriculture and the food supply chain and deploy tools for assessing risks in the food system that require preemptive or remedial action. They also will provide quantitative assessments of emerging risks and plausible interventions and coalesce a multidisciplinary and multi-institutional team to assess COVID-19-like challenges in the future.

Todd Bacastow, teaching professor of geography, is facilitating a focus group with geospatial intelligence experts from government, industry and academia.

“The goal is to explore and anticipate the impact of the pandemic on geospatial intelligence in the current and post-COVID-19 world,” Bacastow said. “Teams are developing future mini scenarios anticipating the impact of COVID-19 on geospatial intelligence in the following general areas: geopolitics; defense; homeland security, law enforcement, emergency management; geospatial technology and privacy; and economic sustainability of academia.”

The mini scenarios will be merged into a more encompassing vision later in the process, Bacastow said.

Siddharth Pandey, who earned a bachelor of science in 2014 and works as a geospatial solutions engineer with Dewberry, said he and his coworkers are working to support federal response efforts by compiling a variety of geospatial datasets.

“I've personally been working to help understand impacts to the private sector and provide geospatial products for situational awareness, as well as helping others in the response effort understand how to utilize GIS and technology to gather, visualize and share information,” Pandey said. “Ultimately, the products we are creating and delivering are helping our federal partners to make data-driven decisions on how to respond to the pandemic and stabilize the various sectors impacts.”

Rachel Passmore, who earned a bachelor of science in 2014, works at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, New York, as the project director for the Children and Youth with Special Health Care Needs project, funded by the New York State Department of Health. The Westchester Institute for Human Development and the University of Rochester are also project partners.

Passmore said the pandemic forced changes in how they implemented the project and amplified its impact on families now socially isolated due to widespread sheltering in place as a result of the pandemic.

“We were just about to start recruiting families for discussions about their life experiences with programs, services and community integration when COVID-19 hit,” Passmore said. “We had to completely rethink all of the intricacies of holding these discussions. We switched the format from in-person to Zoom, changed recruitment strategies and increased our social media presence.”

As families sign up for these sessions, Passmore explained, family liaisons ascertain if families need technology help for the discussions and also virtual schooling and telemedicine. After the discussions, families receive a gift card as compensation and additional information from the N.Y. State local health departments, and Parent-to-Parent of NYS.

Project team members have also developed an online COVID-19 resource guide.

Last Updated May 22, 2020