With COVID-19 comes a wealth of data: tests conducted, tests confirmed, contact tracing, infection rates, trends over time – the list goes on.

Without the expertise of statisticians collecting, analyzing, and presenting the data in an easy-to-understand way – it would be much more difficult for the general public to stay up-to-date on the current state of the virus within their own communities.

WSU Statistics Professor Silas Bergen ’09, who earned his Ph.D. in biostatistics from the University of Washington School of Public Health, has worked to turn that wealth of COVID-19 data into learning experiences for his students, while also lending his skills and expertise to better inform the communities he’s a part of.

Bergen’s courses at Winona State include the topics of both data science and data visualization. He teaches his students methods and techniques commonly used in data science, as well as the skills to design and create data visualizations.

In April, after WSU migrated to online learning, Bergen incorporated real-time COVID-19 data into a class project for his students, where they had to write code to access data from the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering (JHU CSSE) case tracking repository.

With the data source aggregating daily increases in confirmed cases for every county in the United States, his data science students worked to pull, clean, aggregate, and visualize case trends for each and every state.

One goal of assigning this project was to impress upon his students the immediate relevance of the data science major and field.

Later in the spring, Bergen was asked to join the City of Winona’s COVID-19 Community Response Team, which is comprised of city staff as well as community members who are tasked with keeping the city informed on COVID-related safety and trends, and advising the city on policy responses.

To contribute to the team’s work, Bergen developed a dashboard within Tableau that visualizes 14- and 7-day moving case rates, positivity rates, and daily reported case counts for Winona and adjacent counties using publicly available data.

He used the same data from the JHU CSSE that his students used for their in-class projects, while also incorporating additional resources from the Minnesota Department of Health’s weekly reports in order to visualize weekly increases in COVID tests and approximate positivity rates.

Since developing the county’s dashboard, Bergen also worked with WSU to create a WSU-specific dashboard within Tableau, which visualizes COVID-19 conditions on campus, including the number of confirmed cases and number isolating and quarantining, among other data.

He was also able to link the dashboard with Google Sheets, which allows others at the university who help manage the weekly updates to easily update it – even if they have had no prior experience with Tableau.

The dashboard has become a useful resource not only to keep the university community informed, but the surrounding Winona community as well.

Bergen also stepped up to volunteer as a contact tracer for Winona County over the spring and summer.

He had previously received epidemiology training that included contact tracing while at the University of Washington, along with learning about its vital role in cutting the spread of highly contagious diseases.

“I was very curious to actually do some contact tracing and see how it was implemented locally, after learning about the hypotheticals in graduate school,” said Bergen.

His time spent as a contact tracer was more on the data collection side, he shared, contacting confirmed cases and interviewing them to ascertain how they might have contracted the virus, as well as who they may have come into contact with during their infectious period. He then followed-up with those contacts, in hopes they would quarantine themselves to prevent further spread.

What did he learn during his time as a contact tracer?

“The data showed me that the guidelines we hear again and again (avoid large gatherings, maintain physical distance, mask up) are not arbitrary, but really do prevent spread,” Bergen said. “Many of the outbreaks and case spikes we’ve seen followed lapses in adhering to these guidelines.”

As the fight against COVID-19 continues, Bergen plans to take his recent experiences directly into the classroom where they can continue to benefit his students’ education.

He plans to use both of his dashboards when he next teaches his data visualization course, “hiding the originals, of course, so students can flex their creative muscles,” he added. “Knowing that these are dashboards that people actually look at, using highly relevant data, should be a strong motivator. I look forward to seeing what they come up with!”

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Judi Becker

Judi has been a Warrior since 1980, when she earned a Bachelor of Science in English with a Writing Emphasis. Two of her three masters degrees are also from Winona State, one in Education and one in TESOL. She has been a student-teaching supervisor, adjunct instructor, and mentor, working frequently with second language learners.