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Amelia Acker Researches COVID Data Infrastructures

COVID Data Infrastructures

In the wake of the worldwide coronavirus pandemic, thousands of open source COVID data projects were launched in an attempt to organize the chaos of information emerging about this new infectious disease. These COVID data infrastructure projects were crucial in enabling policy-makers and the public to understand the impact of the virus in communities around the world.

Dr. Amelia Acker, an assistant professor at the iSchool, and a team of researchers are studying the challenges in producing and maintaining these critical data infrastructures, which Acker explains are technologies, systems, and structures that connect us in vital ways. “These physical and digital systems ensure our society’s safety, well-being, and growth,” she said. Like all infrastructures, these systems prioritize particular users, uses, and values over others. The COVID Data Infrastructure Builders project, funded by grants from the National Science Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, will investigate how community membership, work practices, and technical tools serve to support knowledge production about the COVID crisis.

“Studying COVID data dashboards and the people who build, maintain, and manage them tells us about how we are confronting the COVID-19 pandemic with evidence.”

“Studying COVID data dashboards and the people who build, maintain, and manage them tells us about how we are confronting the COVID-19 pandemic with evidence,” said Acker. “These dashboards tell us important things about how different communities access real-time public health data and make decisions with this evidence. In the long-term, I believe understanding these tools and the motivations behind building these tools will increase data literacy, public interest technology advocacy, and our understandings of participation in citizen science.”

Researching critical data infrastructures during a global pandemic provides a unique opportunity to analyze and interpret how these projects were created and maintained under conditions of significant stress and resource constraints. Additionally, the team intends to study sites in the United States and India in order to explore the range of data challenges that the same disease can create in geographies that differ in their existing data infrastructures and policies. Reflecting on how the global pandemic has affected the way that investigators collaborate and conduct research, Acker said, “With team members in Bangalore (Dr. Janaki Srinivasan and Dr. Bidisha Chaudhuri), Boston (Dr. Ryan Ellis) and Seattle (Dr. Megan Finn) we are coordinating interview collection, survey instruments, and data analysis across so many boundaries!”

“I think as a researcher working through the pandemic with this project team, I’ve learned a lot about making space for slowing down, connecting, and maintaining conviviality when we meet together,” she said. “We’re learning a lot about each other’s personal lives, zooming in to each of our homes each week and meeting across four time zones. Collaborative research is one of my favorite things about my job at UT, so collaborating with this team through the pandemic has really been a blessing. It’s made me feel more connected to my colleagues and excited about what we will discover.”

To learn more about the project and Acker’s other research in the Critical Data Studies Lab, visit: data.ischool.utexas.edu.