IST research aims to understand a global pandemic

Jordan Ford
September 16, 2020

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of iConnect, the alumni magazine of the College of Information Sciences and Technology.

Since the novel coronavirus began its spread earlier this year, College of Information Sciences and Technology faculty and students have been innovative in addressing a variety of challenges related to COVID-19, including how to equip researchers with the most up-to-date information, how to educate the public about mitigation tactics, and how more online interactions put our privacy at risk. The pandemic has inflicted a massive and tragic toll, but it has also mobilized new efforts — including those highlighted here — to better understand this pandemic, inform future emergency management efforts, and remain connected as a global community.

Informing decision-making

Led by assistant teaching professor Nick Giacobe, IST student teams tracked the actions of 800 U.S. colleges and universities to build a database of their responses to the global coronavirus outbreak, such as each institution's move to remote learning, commencement modifications, and plans for upcoming semesters.

Emergency managers from across the country, including those at Penn State, use this data to benchmark their school’s action plans against the activities of peer institutions, with results reported daily to the FEMA Disaster Resistant Universities Working Group.

“[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,” said Timothy Nevil, an IST student participating in the project. “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.”

In addition to building the database, students researched the impact of coronavirus on national and international perspectives, misinformation, and cybersecurity. Collectively, students prepared bottom line up front — or BLUF — reports, which helped Penn State administrators make more informed and efficient decisions by incorporating recommendations at the beginning of the text.

“Having all of this information in one place is invaluable,” said Pamela Soule, planning manager at the office of emergency management and planning at Penn State. “The database saves time in gathering decision-making information and the BLUFs are an excellent resource for our daily situation reports.”

Understanding privacy

The novel coronavirus outbreak has led to a surge in online activity as users turn to the internet to support routine social activities. These activities help individuals seek support and build community, but they also leave them vulnerable to oversharing personal information that could be used against them.

Now, with a study funded by the National Science Foundation, IST researchers are exploring how users’ attitudes toward privacy change during times of crises, and whether oversharing has been expedited or even encouraged during the coronavirus pandemic.

“People voluntarily self-disclose information in part to build their social support structures, so it’s natural during this crisis, where physical social distancing measures are in place, that we’d see an increase in self-disclosure as people look online to feel more socially connected,” explained Anna Squicciarini, associate professor of IST and co-investigator on the project. “But this connectedness can come at a cost.”

The cost? While individuals may be finding more community, they’re also leaving themselves open to harassment, identity theft, or even discrimination by employers and creditors.

The team — which includes assistant professor of IST and co-investigator Sarah Rajtmajer, as well as IST doctoral students Taylor Blose and Prasanna Umar — is analyzing and comparing millions of online comments reporting on COVID-19 to trends of social disclosure seen during other crises. The team will also analyze posts in Italian through a collaboration with The University of Insubria in Italy, allowing them to evaluate cultural and infrastructural differences at varying points during the pandemic lifecycle.

“If we can understand these relationships, we can understand more about whether individuals are more susceptible to deviant actors or general privacy breaches," said Rajtmajer.

Improving search queries

Led by Lee Giles, David Reese Professor of IST, a team of researchers created a search engine that sorts through the COVID-19 Open Research Dataset — called CORD-19 — a free resource of tens of thousands of scholarly articles that are focused on COVID-19. The project aims to help researchers better understand — and potentially stop — the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“When the dataset was first announced, we immediately thought a worthwhile project to pursue would be to create a search engine because any effort focused on the virus could be useful,” said Giles. “We did this in a week. Now we are going after more aspects of the data to better visualize it and make it available. While the site already has a search engine, we wanted to see if we could build one that might have improved performance.”

He hopes the tool, called COVIDSeer, will provide researchers with quick access to needed peer-reviewed publications on the virus that could help them advance their research. Compared to other datasets, Giles said that this set is relatively small and, therefore, easier to index. The data is drawn from research sites, such as bioRxiv and MedRxiv. COVIDSeer is listed in the search engine list of AllenAI, a non-profit research institute that uses AI and engineering in service of the common good.

Other teams are integrating the search engine into their own applications, and Giles’ team is reaching out to build more partnerships in the battle against COVID-19. The database is updated each week, and the team plans to continue to add new features.

The team includes Giles; Penn State students Jason Chhay, Shaurya Rohatgi, Arjun Menon and Zeba Karishma; and collaborators from Old Dominion University and the University of Illinois, Chicago.

Educating to stop the spread

Practicing physical distancing, wearing a face mask, and handwashing have been suggested or required to help mitigate the spread of novel coronavirus. While these concepts seem easy to understand, they can be difficult for people to operationalize and maintain.

To help individuals put these ideas into practice, Penn State researchers developed an intelligent online tutor aimed at educating the public about the science behind COVID-19 and appropriate steps to reduce its transmission.

"Everyone knows you're supposed to wash your hands, but when? You're supposed to use soap, but which kinds work effectively and what other methods like baby wipes or Vaseline may be less effective?” described Frank Ritter, professor of IST and the tutor’s team leader. “Public health information needs to be practiced for it to be effective.”

Titled "Skills To Obstruct Pandemics,” or STOP, and available at with a free account, the tutor guides the user through lessons and quizzes about how the virus is transmitted and what actions individuals can take to mitigate its spread.

The tutor covers a wide range of topics, including the basic microbiology of COVID-19, the benefits of herd immunity, and the differences between quarantine and isolation. While the tutor focuses specifically on the novel coronavirus, nearly all of the concepts are applicable to other respiratory pathogens.

“We’re all focused on flattening the curve and keeping it flat, but it takes small, daily actions from a tremendous number of people to do that. Understanding the virus, how it’s transmitted, and how you can protect yourself and others is critical until a pharmaceutical intervention is available,” said Ritter.

The team includes members from Penn State’s Applied Research Laboratory, College of Nursing, and the Huck Institutes for Life Sciences, and is advised by outside experts from the Society for Disaster Medicine and Public Health. Funding for the project was provided by the Office of Naval Research, Applied Research Laboratory, and the College of IST.

Last Updated June 28, 2021