The second annual GEOINT Innovative Tradecraft Competition came to a close on Wednesday with the announcement of the winner: Whitespace for its Data Pandemos project, led by spatial data analyst, Samantha Leung, which aims to equip government officials with a tool to better predict and mitigate outbreaks.
Whitespace, based in Alexandria, Va., beat out the other three finalists and claimed the top spot by only five votes.
“The judges certainly had their work cut out for them,” said USGIF CEO Ronda Schrenk. “They’re all rock stars.”
The competition was certainly stiff, but perhaps Whitespace’s willingness to tackle what’s affecting so many people directly – and right now – nudged the team ahead of the pack.
Data Pandemos uses aggregated, anonymized geolocation data from mobile devices to identify proximity patterns: the times and places when large groups of people are likely to be within six feet of one another, and thus at greater risk of COVID-19 transmission. The project is a collaboration between Whitespace and Yale biostatistician Forrest Crawford, with the State of Connecticut serving as the pilot client.
Whitespace gathered its data through a partnership with location data provider Outlogic, gaining access to a sample size of about 3% of Connecticut’s population. It then built and trained an algorithm to flag instances when multiple devices gather in close proximity. The focus on proximity was different from the two prevailing strategies aimed at mitigating outbreaks, both of which were flawed: contact tracing was reactive, while the mobility-based approach that informed interstate travel restrictions failed to account for the fact that an activity, such as crossing state lines to go camping, was far less likely to influence COVID transmission than attending an indoor concert in one’s own community.
“The real driver of disease transmission for COVID is coming into contact with other people,” said Samantha Leung, a spatial data analyst at Whitespace and the company’s presenter at the Innovative Tradecraft Competition.
So that’s what Data Pandemos measures. Its dashboards display trends and spikes in contact, including a meaningful correspondence between contact and positive cases over the last year. That connection gives public health agencies a tool to help focus testing resources before there is a surge in cases and guides messaging about masking and social distancing protocols.
For example, as Connecticut colleges and universities prepared to reopen this fall, the data showing the correlation between contact rates and positive cases informed the decisions to require masks indoors at several institutions. The insights were also useful in guiding deliberations about reopening plans at shopping malls and restaurants as the state moved to ease its “Phase 3” restrictions.
Whitespace is now experimenting with using the device-proximity algorithm to assess crowd dynamics in different contexts, such as sporting events and political rallies.
“The future of human security is data driven,” Leung said.
For more information about the other finalists, check out our roundup here.