University program allows students to take on COVID-19 projects with WHO


Photo Courtesy of Brian Stauffer

Ian Brooks, director of the CHIME at Illinois program, poses for a photo.

By Amrita Bhattacharyya, Staff Writer

The University’s Center for Health Informatics started a new initiative this summer in which students can work with health agencies t o help support data science projects relating to COVID-19. 

So far, students have analyzed social media data throughout the Americas and developed COVID-19 information dashboards for local health departments. 

The Center for Health Informatics Mobilizing Experts in Illinois, or CHIME in Illinois, is a collaborative effort with the World Health Organization and Pan-American Health Organization. 

CHIME in Illinois currently has eight different projects, with over 30 volunteers total, including recent alumni, doctorate, master’s, and undergraduate students. Projects typically last one to two months. 

Ian Brooks, director of CHIME in Illinois, said the idea for the program came about from looking at the structure of Illinois Business Consulting, a student-managed professional consulting organization. 

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Brooks liked how IBC allowed students to work on real-world problems related to their interests. 

“There was a lot of potential for using the same model with data science and public health,” Brooks said. 

Having spent years planning the program with the WHO, the rise of COVID-19 facilitated the process in finally starting CHIME in Illinois. 

“A lot of public health agencies are completely overwhelmed with the need of responding to the pandemic, particularly in the areas of data science, analyzing data (and) visualizing data,” Brooks said. “We are basically providing skilled teams that can help them out.”

Siyao Zhang, junior in AHS, has been working on a research project for CHIME in Illinois since mid-June. 

Zhang has helped to analyze the performance of health data systems in Latin American regions, and was tasked with making visualizations as well as suggesting improvements for each country. 

Now, Zhang is working with her team to see if they can optimize their data and make a website. 

Zhang joined the project because it aligned with her extended interests of data analysis and health systems, and said this experience has been very beneficial for her because it has exposed her to how data analysis works in reality. 

“When we learned skills from class, it was mostly like here is a right answer that we can refer to. But in the real world, there was just no right answer, and it is up to me and my teammates to work out the right solutions,” Zhang said. 

This resulted in a process in which Zhang and her team spent a lot of time debugging mistakes they had made, which Zhang calls a “valuable experience.” 

Brooks says the CHIME initiative will be an ongoing effort. “The need is not going to change. What will change is the urgency of the type of projects we can work on,” Brooks said. 

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