As the coronavirus tightened its grip across the globe in late spring 2020, faculty members associated with the Policy Destination Area began brainstorming about how they could respond to the pandemic.

“The mission of the Destination Areas is to use interdisciplinary synergy and collaboration to tackle critical, complex problems,” said Isabel Bradburn, program director for the Policy Destination Area (DA). “As an unprecedented global pandemic, we wondered how the Policy DA could harness our resources to better understand policy decisions regarding COVID-19, which could help guide current efforts, future outbreaks and efforts in affected spheres, like the economy and the environment.” 

With this goal in mind, Bradburn and Policy DA co-faculty leads Karen Hult, professor of political science who is also a faculty member in the Center for Public Administration and Policy, and Julia Gohlke, associate professor of population health sciences within the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, conceived the idea to develop a “database of databases” related to the policies around the pandemic, with direct links to data for researchers to use. 

“We wanted to include databases that were relevant to the antecedents, progression and aftermath of the pandemic that contained policy, environmental and social science data,” Bradburn explained. “Our hope was that this ‘database of databases’ would facilitate research on possible and actual policy changes in response to the pandemic, or on their ramifications, considering the pandemic as a ‘natural experiment.’”  

The faculty team that guided development of the COVID-19 database also included Policy DA stakeholders Susan Chen, associate professor of agricultural and applied economics in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and Andrew Katz, assistant professor of engineering education in the College of Engineering.

With funding from the Policy DA, the team hired four undergraduate and two graduate students, meeting almost daily for two months to determine how best to characterize databases for multidisciplinary researchers. To ensure broad interest among faculty, the team used responses from a survey they administered to help guide database selection.  

“We learned right away that we had to answer fundamental questions about what constitutes a database, how to describe methodologies, and even what are considered data - all of which may differ by academic discipline. It was truly an interdisciplinary effort,” said Hult.  

To help define data attributes as broadly as possible, the team reached out to University Libraries. There, they worked with Kara Long, coordinator of metadata technologies, who helped the team identify metadata schemes to facilitate data searches. 

To automate those searches, the team also partnered with DataBridge, a program that provides undergraduate students with hands-on research experience in data science and pairs them with real-life projects to hone their newly developed skills. DataBridge built the web interface and backend infrastructure for the project. 

“We work with students from any discipline and teach them about data literacy and management, programming, and data visualization,” said Anne M. Brown, assistant professor of biochemistry in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and director of DataBridge. “Students get to see how real projects work, how messy they are, and how their efforts can impact output for research projects and the sharing of information.”

The COVID-19 policy database project was a perfect fit for DataBridge. “The team came to us with limited time and resources, but these types of projects really help students to grow,” said Jonathan Briganti, DataBridge manager. 

“Working on this project required me to learn a lot of new skills quickly, but I've been able to use what I've learned about web scripting to focus more on web development and database management. I look forward to being able to use and refine these skills on other projects like this,” said Truitt Elliott, a biochemistry major and one of two students primarily assigned to the project.   

Students working with Policy DA faculty also played a key role in development of the database. Graduate students worked with faculty to locate and vet databases. The undergraduate students – from four different majors and spanning three colleges - coded each approved database, helping to iteratively refine the codes through intensive discussion with supervisors.

"Having the opportunity to work with so many different databases opened up so many ideas and questions for me about the implications of COVID-19. This experience led me to join the DataBridge research team and also pursue my own research project on the impacts of the pandemic in Brazil," said Emily Warwick, a senior international relations major and one of the student team members.

Bradburn noted the curated database, which includes descriptions of dataset strengths and caveats as well as coded characteristics and live data links, can expand and accelerate the research process for investigators.

“For policy scholars, such a collection of databases can facilitate the examination of myriad issues, ranging from possible influences on business, government, and nonprofit decisions related to responding to COVID to mitigating the impact of the pandemic among specific groups. The database also makes it possible to trace the consequences of policy decisions,” explained Hult.   

Because the database includes numerous databases that preceded the pandemic, it can be used to address more general social science questions as well. The database is currently maintained and updated by Kelsey McMahon, a master’s student in the Department of Sociology and one of the student developers. 

For more information about the COVID-19 Influences and Impacts Database, contact Isabel Bradburn or access the website directly at https://sites.google.com/vt.edu/covid-19-data-lake/home

— Written by Yancey Crawford