Youyang Gu

The Newcomers Cohort (New York)

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In the data modeling world during COVID-19, there was no bigger name than Youyang Gu (New York). An MIT graduate with a pension for data, Gu led the nation with his clear, concise data reporting and analysis.

Ensheng Dong

The Newcomers Cohort (Maryland)

The Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 dashboard did more to educate Americans about global health and geography than any single resource in modern history.

Ensheng Dong (Maryland)

No doubt – the student behind it changed the world.

Early in the pandemic, references to the “team” behind the project misguidedly believed an office of experts originated the project, as the workload and unique skills needed to take on such a task seemed impossible for one person, much less one student.

Unknown to most of the world was that Ensheng started the project on his own, with help from his academic advisor, Lauren Gardner.

A few words from those who nominated Ensheng:

“Ensheng Dong is the brain behind the Johns Hopkins University dashboard that put the virus in the global and geographical spotlight. He was a grad student and wanted to provide data about the virus because his family lived in Taiyuan. Without this work, who knows if we would have ever seen the virus the way we do now.””The best epidemiology model to track the COVID epidemic with the statistical tests.”

Click here to visit the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 site.

Rachel Woodul

The Newcomers Cohort (North Carolina)

Rachel Woodul (North Carolina)

Rachel Woodul is a PhD Student in the Department of Geography and a Research Assistant at the Carolina Population Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Rachel’s research interests include epidemic modeling, disease ecology, and infectious diseases, with a particular focus on pandemic influenza.

She employs geographic information systems (GIS), spatio-statistical and epidemiological analysis, and ecological frameworks to understand transmission dynamics and population-level impacts of epidemics and pandemics.

Her recent research has focused on simulating the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic in a modern population, pandemic hospital capacity modeling, and modeling vulnerability to mortality during a pandemic.

“I work as part of the NCCOVID-19 team with Dr. Paul Delamater at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. NC COVID-19 provides up-to-date estimates and future forecasts of SARS-CoV-2 infections, COVID-19 cases, and (coming soon) COVID-19-related hospitalizations and deaths in North Carolina.

“We created this site largely because we were unable to locate information about SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 in North Carolina that we thought was important for understanding past, current, and future transmission and risk,” Rachel said. “I believe the most important aspect of this project is making epidemiological data available to the public in ways that are both easily understandable and useful for gauging risk. What we know about this pandemic changes every day, so we update the site every day to ensure that North Carolinians have access to the most up-to-date information about things that matter to them, like transmission in school districts and rates of vaccination.”

A few words from those who nominated Rachel:

“Rachel is basically running the only resource for COVID-19 in NC, and I honestly don’t know where we’d be without her!”

Click here to visit the NC COVID-19 site.

Click here to visit Rachel’s Twitter page.

Philip Nelson

The Newcomers Cohort (South Carolina)

Philip Nelson (South Carolina)

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Philip Nelson has collected data and informed South Carolinians about the virus in their state.

In March 2020, Nelson started a simple spreadsheet to collect daily data, but then quickly realized that he could use his computer science background to automate his work and expand the resources he provided.

Starting off, he didn’t know much about working with data or using code, but over time that changed.

He wrote scripts and learned to use data tools and libraries to help visualize the data, and then he started posting the information to his Twitter.

Over several months he learned how to use programming to pull large amounts of data from SC DHEC, visualize it, and then post it to twitter all within seconds of the data going live.

His work has garnered attention from state legislators. local media, and public health researchers.

“I care about accurately presenting the data in an accessible manner, and I want everyone to have access to data,” Nelson said. “Because DHEC doesn’t accessibly provide downloadable case history for the state and its counties, I provide CSVs and graphs of this data on my website.”

Philip has worked hard and learned many things in order to become a reliable source for South Carolina COVID19 data.

A few words from those who nominated Philip:

“As an investigative reporter his datasets have provided me leads on stories I wasn’t even thinking about, particularly the scale of COVID outbreak in South Carolina prisons. His willingness to push through and find new ways of analyzing data particularly in a rural southern state is unlike anything else I’ve seen.”

“I’m a retired biostatistician. When the pandemic hit, I started tracking SCDHEC data on my own. As soon as I found Philip’s data tracking, I quit doing my own. Philip posts summaries, points out trends, and presents it all in clear graphics, usually within minutes of SCDHEC’s daily data release. He points out inconsistencies in the official data, and does a better job than SCDHEC explaining the quirks in data collection. He does all this on his own time, while a full-time student at Winthrop. He has a knack for digging into data and turning it into user-friendly graphics, and the drive to get through the many technical issues of automating the process. He has a bright future ahead.”

Click here to follow Philip on Twitter

Benjy Renton

The Newcomers Cohort (Vermont)

Benjy Renton (Vermont)

The White House COVID-19 outbreak tracker became one of the most illustrative data pieces of the failure of the Trump administration in handling the pandemic.

The 21-year-old college senior behind the project started collecting that data out of curiosity on a piece of paper after Donald Trump tested positive last October.

Not long after, Benjy Renton’s other COVID-19 data projects and maps were being shared across the world, informing decision makers and driving national discussions about school reopening and more – work he had been doing throughout the pandemic.

“It snowballed into a much larger project that started initially with the first White House outbreak.. and went into December,” he said.

Benjy tracks cases in universities, too. And he tracks which counties in the United State are (or are not) meeting the CDC’s recently revised metrics for reopening schools safely.

He was in China last January (2020) when news of the outbreak spread across the world. When he returned to the U.S., he was shocked to find how few measures were being taken. His work visualizing COVID-19 data started not long after. From tracking testing to outbreaks in higher education, Benjy worked to get the data out.

Someone said he should be hung during a Reddit “Ask me anything event.” Online harassment comes with COVID-19 communication, no matter how much the source sticks to the data.

“The raw numbers don’t lie,” he said. “You can use the numbers to lie, but the raw numbers don’t lie. It’s important for people to understand exactly what is happening.”

A few words from those who nominated Benjy:

“Benjy has been doing basically everything since the pandemic started, from contact tracing the White House to making accessible visualizations of vaccine rollout to writing a weekly newsletter summarizing all of the relevant new Covid information from that week. I can’t point to any single person and objectively say he saved their life, but I have no doubt that his data work has gotten thousands of people through the pandemic well-informed, well-protected, and maybe even a little less lonely. And he’s been doing all of this on top of a full course load from a NESCAC.”

“Benjy Renton has done a remarkable job at collating information about the pandemic, both nationally and with specific focuses on higher ed, the White House, and Vermo nt. His weekly newsletters have done an incredible job at summarizing the state of higher ed and the country on a weekly basis. His various projects and even his Twitter feed have been fantastic, thorough, and all-encompassing sources of analysis on the pandemic and its effects. His skilled data interpretation and visualizations have been outstanding. He’s perhaps known most widely for his incredible trackers on COVID cases in colleges and the White House, vaccine distribution, and more–some of which he established far before other news sources attempted something similar. The most remarkable element of Benjy Renton’s work is that he’s not a scientist, or a professional journalist, but a college student. His work is driven not by professional obligation but by care and interest, yet it exceeds that of professionals.”

Click here to visit Benjy’s website
Click here to follow Benjy on Twitter

Avi Schiffmann

The Newcomers Cohort (Washington)

Avi Schiffmann (Washington)

Avi Schiffmann is a bonafide “boy genius.”

The first confirmed COVID-19 case in the United States in Washington startled Avi Schiffmann, even though he was one of the first to track the virus world-wide.

Hearing about the virus in China late in 2019, Avi sought out data tables and feeds but came up with none. The primary sources for developments and reporting COVID-19 were scattered across the internet, written in Mandarin, Korean and Japanese – languages Avi doesn’t speak.

So he began collecting as much data as he could, and by January 2020, he had one of the first sites tracking the virus worldwide.

His work earned him a 2020 Webby Award, presented to him Dr. Anthony Fauci for his work tracking COVID-19.

“As we collectively navigate the severe impact of COVID-19, including the difficult, but critical calls for nationwide social distancing, the Internet has become the lifeblood of people looking for accurate information about the novel coronavirus and the necessary steps to combat it. Since launching the site on December 29th, Schiffmann’s tracking tool has been an invaluable resource that sounded the alarm on the virus and its spread, notably calling attention to its severity long before many global officials. At a time when the spread of misinformation can be so detrimental to our efforts, the site has provided over 100 million visitors with accurate real-time data.”

Anthony Fauci, May 2020

Today, Avi runs his site between classes, applying to college, and homework.

He works with UNESCO, the European Union, and is now a youth ambassador to the United Nations.

He’s not interested in working on teleporting, by the way. He just wants to create revolutionary technology to recreate the internet, and work on cybernetics for creating sustainable technologies to combat the impacts of climate change. Or he’ll become a cottage cheese farmer. “Who knows,” he said.

A few comments from those who nominated Avi:

“He was just 17 years old & knew the pandemic was coming in November 2019. Look at what he did & think of how far he can go. He’s amazing.”

Click here to follow Avi on Twitter

Click here to vist Avi’s website

Sara Anne Willette

The Provocateurs Cohort (Iowa)

Only a handful of states made data access and transparency during the early days of COVID-19 as difficult as Iowa.

Sara Anne Willette (Iowa)

Even now, Iowa remains one of the few states that does not provide data about COVID-19 cases in schools.

But Sara Anne Willette does.

Sara invested all her efforts toward building the Iowa COVID-19 Tracker site early in the pandemic, and continues to provide the public with all of the data the state makes available in an easily-consumable, accessible and transparent way.

For Sara, running the site and keeping Iowans informed is personal; of the first three cases announced in the state, Sara personally knew two of them.

“I track Iowa’s COVID-19 data for two reasons,” she said. “First, the daily data presented by the State of Iowa contains numerous errors and lacks accessibility. The majority of the data must be hand-scraped, a task to which most working Iowans are unable to devote hours per day. Second, as a disabled American with Common Variable Immune Deficiency, I am in a unique position to assist as many Iowans as possible with risk assessment regarding infectious pathogens in their communities and schools.”

Sara made enemies within her state government and her own political party by pressing for more COVID-19 data access and transparency.

The Iowa Governor, Kim Reynolds, has faced public outrage over the handling of COVID-19 and school reopening. Reynolds also falsely claimed at one point that there was science “on both sides” of mask safety, and her political proximity to Donald Trump often muddied public health messaging during the pandemic in her state.

Reynolds allegedly called Sara an “excel warrior” during a press conference last May, disparaging her and others for tracking and reporting cases in the state.

Now, Iowans face a “hunger-games” type vaccine rollout, with seniors fighting for survival in a poorly managed, publicly shamed vaccine distribution plan.

Sara continues to update her data daily, with help from several of her graduate students at Iowa State University who she hired to assist with the project.

A few words from those who nominated Sara:

“Sara has been tracking data since last March, and has been especially important given that the data published by our state has been incorrect, manipulated, and misleading. The view we have on our State’s official website is not current, so does not reflect current conditions. Sara provides data updates by county twice a day, and also data for school districts and colleges and universities in the state. Her transparency is unparalleled.”

“Sara has been accessible and has been rooting out inconsistencies this whole time. She reports honestly to Iowa in real time. She is a hero. She has been silenced and has been relentless with our science denying Governor.”

“Sara began by tracking the data released by the Iowa Dept of Public Health and presenting it in more accessible ways on her own web site. She has contacted the state DPH to try to get them to compute test positivity rates correctly (they still won’t). She independently tracks data on infections and quarantines among school students and staff, which the state does not do in a meaningful way.”

Click here to follow Sara on Twitter.

Click here to see Sara’s website.