Students in the urban computing graduate certificate program gave their group presentations via Zoom at the end of semester 2020 Spring Retreat, focusing on the very thing that led to this virtual format — COVID-19.

The students were charged with taking a look at the pandemic’s impact beyond health — such as economic outcomes, urban design, and interpersonal and online relationships — by Naren Ramakrishnan, the Thomas L. Phillips Professor of Engineering in the Department of Computer Science and director of the Discovery Analytics Center, which administers the National Science Foundation-sponsored multidisciplinary program.

“There has been a lot of research and thought leadership out there about the public health impacts of the pandemic, but relatively lesser emphasis on some of these other aspects,” Ramakrishnan said. “The students’ various disciplinary backgrounds, combined with their UrbComp experience, position them to think about the one-step and two-step removed effects of COVID-19, forecasts, responses, and what might be done going forward, especially if there is a second wave of infections as projected.”

Nikhil Muralidhar, a Ph.D. student in computer science, served as coordinator for all three presenting groups and also led the one on “Effects of COVID-19 on Sustainability,” which included a fellow Ph.D. in computer science, Anika Tabassum, and Jonathan Baker and Ellis Kessler, both Ph.D. students in mathematics. 

Muralidhar said specific topics were honed through an initial Zoom meeting with all students participating from their remote locations. Groups were organized both by student interest and experience.

“For example, in our sustainability group, Ellis and Jonathan leveraged their expertise in mathematics to elucidate certain effects of COVID-19 on the economy, the transportation sector, and manufacturing,” said Muralidhar. “Anika and I leveraged our experience in disaster management and transportation sectors to analyze the effect of potential disasters management and recovery scenarios during COVID-19 and also how public transport would adapt during this time.”

During the presentation, the students suggested that if more people continue to work from home, demand for public transportation will decrease considerably but demand for power will likely increase — as home workers may not keep regular daylight hours — and the power grid may need to adapt to new peak hour patterns. 

But it is not just home workers who will affect power usage. There is a probability of increased electric vehicles if more people reject public transportation and rely on cars, Muralidhar said. “And, although people might decide they can get along with less, it is also possible that post COVID-19 could see a consumption surge, which means manufacturing will also be demanding more power.”  

Joshua Detwiler, a Ph.D. student in computer science, served as coordinator for “Effects of COVID-19 on Education.” This group included Berna Oztekin Gunaydin, a Ph.D. student in urban affairs and planning, and Michelle Dowling (who graduated in May) and Moeti Masiane (scheduled to graduate this summer), both Ph.D. students in computer science.

The four of them discussed whether online schools can really replace “traditional” schools; availability of internet in heavily impacted rural areas if resources are scarce, expensive, or otherwise difficult to access; the prevalence of food insecurity in some locations; a possible need for different attendance policies once students start going back to schools; and many secondary psychological considerations, which include overlapping responsibilities for children, pets, siblings, and parents in need.

“We talked a lot about contract tracing, which could be a solution while we are lacking the medical capability to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in education and other settings,” Detwiler said. “Given that contact tracing is reactive to when someone is exposed to the virus, we discussed a proactive alternative/supplement that involved predictive modeling, which would predict a person’s chance of contracting the virus based on county-level virus cases and attendance counting around a location.”

The third group, coordinated by statistics Ph.D. student Shane Bookhultz, presented “Effects of COVID-19 on Society.” Davon Woodard, a Ph.D. student in planning, governance, and globalization, and Stacey Clifton and Whitney Hayes, Ph.D. students in sociology, were in this group.  

“One challenge we encountered was trying to consider the long-term ramifications of the COVID-19 virus in society,” Bookhultz said. “We have not seen a virus like this in our generation so it is difficult to address long-term outcomes — which is what we wanted to concentrate on — when most of the world is trying to handle the short-term impact right now.”

The students considered media response to the pandemic. How has media discourse changed when discussing COVID-19 and how will this continue throughout the recovery months? How are people affected by the news that they see and what is the most effective way to convey important information? 

Clifton, who graduated in May and has focused much of her research on policing, raised some thoughts on what effect COVID-19 and differing state mandates might have on police forces, like whether police feel that enforcing physical distancing is part of their job. One important post COVID-19 question will be whether crime was really on the decline or was just underreported during the pandemic.  

As part of the presentation on societal impacts, Hayes cited her recent collaborative study among Virginia Tech students, “Effects of COVID-19 on Community Solidarity, Coping, and Identity,” designed to increase understanding of how large-scale disasters or tragedies affect community relations and levels of social solidarity. The study investigates whether social solidarity can exist during a global pandemic when physical distancing mandates inevitably altered ways in which individuals connect to one another. It seeks to measure how social networks influence feelings of solidarity and uses other measurable variables including levels of engagement with Virginia Tech culture and identity as a Hokie, as well as coping strategies and well-being. 

Hayes said the research team just finished collecting data and will complete analysis during the summer months.

As a result of their work for the retreat presentations, the students collectively came to a few conclusions: In the face of a pandemic, data-informed policies can help develop sustainable manufacturing, transportation, and power infrastructure; investment in processes can enable physical and psychological well-being of students; and proper communication can help ensure effective information dissemination and community solidarity.

“One of the primary skills that UrbComp has taught me, and all the other students, is the ability to analyze a problem from multiple vantage points,” said Muralidhar. “This is woven into the fabric of the curriculum in which each urban computing student is encouraged to extensively work with someone from a different major.”

For example, he said, someone majoring in a horizontal area like math, computer science, or statistics, will work with a student majoring in a vertical area like population health sciences, power systems, or sociology.

“The ability to think from multiple vantage points about a problem helped me and everyone involved in the presentation process perform a holistic analysis of each problem and present a comprehensive talk about the short and long-term effects of COVID-19 on various facets of our society," Muralidhar said.

Muralidhar, Tabassum, Baker, Detwiler, Dowling, Masiane, and Bookhultz are also students at the Discovery Analytics Center. 

For more information on the urban computing certificate, contact program coordinator Wanawsha Shalaby.

Written by Barbara L. Micale