U of T Students Create Dashboard for COVID-​19 Case Monitoring

March 23/2020

by Françoise Makanda, Communications Officer at DLSPH

Two PhD students at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health have developed a dashboard tracking COVID-19 cases in Canada – a tool that is proving essential for researchers and news reporters across the country.

“When we have this nice figure that shows the cumulative total, we will be able to see whether the measures we are taking to ‘flatten the curve’ are actually succeeding,” says Jean-Paul Soucy, an epidemiology student and the dashboard’s co-developer.

Flattening the curve means spreading infection cases over a longer period of time to avoid overwhelming hospitals all at once.

The dashboard receives over 300 views and 70 to 80 people look at the data at any single time. Reporters and researchers began looking for a dashboard on the March 14 weekend when stricter physical distancing measures were put in place. That Monday, the duo released the dashboard and were lauded on Twitter for their contribution.

""Isha Berry and Jean-Paul Soucy

The project originated with PhD student Isha Berry, who had been collecting Canadian data through an open spreadsheet that was being fed into a global dashboard. But as Canadian cases began to increase, she needed assistance.

“We were getting a lot of cases, but we were not getting a good idea of the national picture and as things started developing, I needed more support and help,” says Berry, an epidemiology PhD student. “Jean-Paul Soucy came on board as the dashboard development lead.”

Now, a University of Guelph research team is also supporting data entry, curation and manual assistance as Canadian cases continue to rise. Berry says the next immediate goal is to streamline the data entry process and ensure that the dashboard visualizations continue to provide a clear picture of the unfolding outbreak.

Both students are still working on their theses, but the pandemic has become a real-life epidemiology lesson and a way to contribute during a public health crisis. The COVID-19 virus is an exact match for Berry’s thesis research: She studies emerging infectious disease transmission from animals to humans. Her work is centered around the concept of ‘One Health’ – the understanding that the health of people, animals and the environment are all interrelated.

“We’re seeing an increase in contact between humans and animals,” says Berry. “There’s been a number of emerging diseases in the last 13 years and we can expect it to increase. We hope that One Health will be a broader discussion and part of public health.”

Soucy’s PhD thesis looks at antibiotic resistance in humans. “There’s a tremendous amount of antibiotics used for agriculture and the resistance that develops in bacteria because of antibiotics through (agricultural) use also affects resistance in human infectious diseases,” he says. “There’s a developing focus on this notion of ‘One Health’ that we have to be careful of antibiotic use not only in humans but also agriculture settings.”

Soucy and Berry would like outbreak epidemiology to become a larger focus in public health academic programs.

“It may be time for all public health schools to rethink the curriculum,” says Soucy. “It’s certainly going to be different going forward when you tell someone that you are studying epidemiology.”

They will be presenting the dashboard and more at an upcoming webinar on Tuesday, March 24 at 12 p.m. EDT.