A group of high school and college students from around the world who met on a social network popular among video gamers are putting their tech skills to work against the spread of COVID-19 misinformation.
Their effort began in early April, when a Harvard University student, Lucas Chu, sent out a message to a group of people he had met on the social platform Discord. The idea was to organize students to make data visualizations to help show trends in the spread of COVID-19 and to counter false narratives about the virus.
Those students formed what they called the Coronavirus Visualization Team, and they quickly gathered hundreds of participants from high schools and colleges. The goal was to harness their personal interests in computing to help end the pandemic.
“There’s not a lot of ways that we could get directly involved on the front lines—we’re too young,” says Scott Blender, an early member of the group who will be an incoming freshman at Temple University in the fall. “Anyone with a computer and basic [internet] can learn the skills to get involved with meaningful data visualizations. We don’t have to be like 30 years old to make an impactful difference. We can be like 18.” Blender is 18.
One of their most popular works so far has been the COVID-19 Risk Score Model, which shows how the pandemic is “disproportionately affecting marginalized and underserved communities.”
How can these students with little formal training build trust for their infographics and visualizations?
Blender says the answer is to base their work on trusted datasets and to be very clear about their sources. The students have also formed partnerships with a number of high-profile institutions, including Harvard’s Center for Geographic Analysis and the MIT Innovation Initiative. “It has really been just by cold emailing and cold contacting people,” says Blender, who says that he is working 14-hour days on Zoom calls and emails to help lead the effort.
One of the established folks mentoring the group is Thara Pillai, director of alumni programs and engagement at Harvard Innovation Labs. “What's fascinating about this team is that it is made up of students from major universities from across the country,” she said in an email interview. “They've managed to figure out a way to bring in data scientists, engineers, and industry experts to develop meaningful insights around coronavirus from unemployment to predictive analytics around the spread and growth of the virus in different communities. While they could easily charge for this valuable content, they've have elected to provide the content free of charge to the media, governments and social agencies to advance theses entities' understanding of this deadly virus.”
Just this week, the student leaders filed papers to incorporate as a nonprofit, under the name Erevna, the Greek word for research. They hope to have a new website up under the new name soon.
One of the biggest motivations of the group is to clearly present data in ways that counter false narratives about the coronavirus, says Pauline Chane, a participant who recently graduated from the University of California at Berkeley. As she put it: “We want to fight the infodemic around COVID-19.”
Chane’s role is to connect students in Erevna with research projects on an open-source research platform called Just One Giant Lab, or JOGL. That platform features a long list of projects led by researchers around the world looking for volunteers to contribute their time and talents.
“There’s a project I found on JOGL that was looking at Twitter data about pro-vaccine or anti-vaccine views,” she says. “The project had been dormant for many many months, but I felt like it was a good fit for students. I was able to get into contact with the person who started the project in Uganda,” she adds. The researcher eventually put some of the student volunteers to work, she says. “We basically revived a dead project for him.”
Editor's Note: This story was updated with a quote from an official at Harvard Innovation Labs.