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January 15, 2021

Using grant funds provided by UVM’s Office of Engagement, Professor Chris Callahan and Manchester, Vt., programmer Jeremy Walker have developed a new web app that “pushes” customized COVID-19 data to users’ laptops or cellphones.

As an agricultural engineer for the UVM Extension Service, Chris Callahan is finding his training and background useful in building a new web app to measure COVID-19 case counts.

“That might seem like a leap, but in my Extension work I’m using data all the time, advising farmers on water management, energy use, or development of new equipment. Lately the concerns have been with COVID—the risk of partnering with customers in different states or counties.”

Using grant funds provided by UVM’s Office of Engagement, Callahan and Manchester, Vt., programmer Jeremy Walker have developed a new web app that “pushes” customized COVID-19 data to users’ laptops or cellphones.

Subscribers to the free service receive the latest COVID case numbers from up to five counties in Vermont or anywhere else in the U.S. Users receive a text—daily or weekly, depending on their preference—that provides updated COVID case counts along with two-day and seven-day trends. The latter feature gives users a quick snapshot of how case counts are trending in specific areas.

“I kind of stumbled into an awareness of the Vermont data model and noticed a lot of people didn’t know about it,” Callahan said. “Also, there might not be many people who would actually go to a website on daily basis.”

Callahan’s interest in COVID-19 data reporting stems from his volunteer role as a director of the Southshire School, an independent day school in North Bennington where his child attends.

“We’re in the southwest corner of Vermont and we draw students from three different states,” explains Callahan. “As COVID-19 spread we had to use the best data available to inform decisions.”

Callahan is a big fan of Vermont’s COVID-reporting dashboard developed by the Vermont Departments of Financial Regulation and the Vermont Department of Health. The model uses actual COVID-19 case count data from Johns Hopkins University, estimates active case counts by county, and feeds a color-coded map used by the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development.

“Vermont’s model is more forward-looking than many reports. Most data sets are limited for planning purposes—by the time you see your active case count, the data is obsolete. Vermont’s model provides an estimated actual case count that is more informative.”

Callahan worked with Walker, also a parent at Southshire, to renovate a barn to increase capacity and safety for the school’s students. Between sawing boards and pounding nails, they concluded they could build a project drawing on existing data that would “push” results to subscribers, and they began collaborating on evenings and weekends.

That’s when they learned about the Rapid Response Research (RAPID) Grant program offered by UVM’s Office of Engagement, which partners with the UVM Extension Office.

After submitting a successful proposal, Callahan received $4800 in funding mostly to cover some of Walker’s time in web development and infrastructure. They publicized the new tool to friends and acquaintances, and launched the app early this month. In Callahan’s reckoning it was a “a crazy-fast timeframe.”

The project already has over 100 subscribers, with 500 participants targeted by the end of the pilot stage later this winter. Callahan and Walker are also engaging with Vermont’s Department of Health on integrating their model into state reporting.

“The state agencies really have their hands full right now, everything from testing to policymaking. So our approach was to do a project in a really lean way using existing data.”

Callahan thinks the trend data provided by the app will be a helpful tool for administrators, travelers and business owners around the state. He cites a personal example—his wife operates an independent bookstore business with customers from multiple counties and states.

“A lot of small businesspeople like her are trying to figure out ‘how am I going to do business over the next three months? Should I allow customers access, or is now the time to pivot and do curbside?’”

Callahan describes their work as a “seed project” to demonstrate feasibility and public interest for a more developed, larger scale, and more widely promoted version of the tool.

He sees value in the process as well as the product.

“When I step back, I think this project exemplifies the goals of the extension system, which is connected to the land-grant mission of UVM. My involvement grew out of  a sense of community engagement—being a citizen and community volunteer.”

UVM’s Office of Engagement (OOE) serves as the “front door” of the university for private, public and non-profit entities and communities looking to access UVM’s many strengths and capabilities. The office also takes on the ambitious goal of directing UVM’s expertise towards community and economic development across the state. This is the first in a series of articles on successful projects funded by four OOE COVID Outreach Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grants to Vermont organizations to relieve the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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