HackEbola at UMass aids fight against West African epidemic

Last modified: Sunday, November 23, 2014

AMHERST — From across the world, young mathematicians, biologists and other scholars at the University of Massachusetts Amherst crunched numbers this weekend in hopes of aiding the fight against the Ebola epidemic in West Africa.

“It has to start somewhere,” said Andrew Smith, 26, a fourth-year doctoral candidate in organismic and evolutionary biology at UMass.

On Smith’s laptop was a diagram resembling a family tree that shows the different strains of Ebola identified during outbreaks in the 1970s, the 1990s and the present. He pointed out that the strains currently spreading through West Africa are different from those previously identified, and speculated that may be one reason why this outbreak has been difficult to control.

His data showed how patients with different strains of Ebola fared. Some are listed as deceased or discharged, while the status of others is unknown. Through this information, he hoped to better understand what parts of Africa had the deadliest strains.

Smith was among more than 50 students from the Five Colleges who took part in a HackEbola event in the John W. Lederle Research Center at UMass planned from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon.

The event was organized as a way for students and faculty at the Five Colleges to participate remotely in the simultaneous HackEbola at Harvard University. HackEbola at UMass was organized by a group called Graduate Researchers interested in Data, also known as GRiD, which formed last year as a way to bring graduate students together to analyze and present data through the lenses of different disciplines, said its co-chairwoman, Emily Ramos.

A “hack” event, sometimes called a “hackathon,” is a gathering of a large number of people who come together solely to work on solutions to a particular problem. HackEbola at UMass began Friday evening with talks from UMass assistant professors Nicholas Reich of biostatistics and Chaitra Gopalappa of mechanical and industrial engineering, and Amherst College academic technology specialist Andy Anderson. On Sunday evening, the teams were to present their data for four judges determining awards in the categories of best data visualization, best use of outside data and best overall.

In a room on the 16th floor of the Lederle building Saturday, teams of two to five participants analyzed the data in different ways, looking at trends such as how the spread of the disease relates to socioeconomic status and travel bans among countries.

“Ebola is a very pertinent, happening topic right now,” said Ramos, 27, a second year master’s student in biostatistics at UMass. “You get to the human element of the data, not just seeing numbers in a table.”

The concentration was evident as participants pored over extensive spreadsheets of raw data on their laptops. The data came from the Humanitarian Data Exchange, an online repository of public data on humanitarian crises, according to event organizers.

Armand Halbert, 23, a second-year master’s student in computer science at UMass, analyzed the effectiveness of how travel bans relate to the spread of Ebola by analyzing the reported cases among countries with different types of travel restrictions. He said this kind of data was particularly interesting to him because he used to work at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

Sitting next to Smith was Moira Concannon, also a fourth-year doctoral candidate in organismic and evolutionary biology at UMass. She said she was grateful for the opportunity to meet and work with graduate students with different concentrations.

“I think it’s really interesting to see how different fields approach similar questions,” said Concannon, 26. “It points out how effective collaboration can be in a crisis like this outbreak.”

The results of the HackEbola will be presented on the event’s website at http://umassamherst-grid.github.io/ebola-hackfest.

Gena Mangiaratti can be reached at gmangiaratti@gazettenet.com.


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