Data Science newsletter – April 6, 2020

Newsletter features journalism, research papers, events, tools/software, and jobs for April 6, 2020


Data Science News

How Does a Library Respond to a Global Health Crisis?

National Library of Medicine, NLM Musings from the Mezzanine blog, Patti Brennan


Around the world, scientists, public health officials, medical professionals, and others are working to address the coronavirus pandemic.

At NLM, we’ve been working on multiple fronts to improve researchers’ understanding of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes the novel coronavirus) and aid in the response to COVID-19 (the disease caused by the novel coronavirus). By enhancing access to relevant data and information, NLM is demonstrating how libraries can contribute in real time to research and response efforts during this crisis.

Scientists develop AI that can turn brain activity into text

The Guardian, Nicola Davis


Reading minds has just come a step closer to reality: scientists have developed artificial intelligence that can turn brain activity into text.

While the system currently works on neural patterns detected while someone is speaking aloud, experts say it could eventually aid communication for patients who are unable to speak or type, such as those with locked in syndrome.

“We are not there yet but we think this could be the basis of a speech prosthesis,” said Dr Joseph Makin, co-author of the research from the University of California, San Francisco.

Help Profs Teach Stanford’s Popular, and Now Free, Online Intro to Coding Course

Scientific American, Observations, Lisa Einstein


I signed up to be a volunteer section leader. You can, too! But do it ASAP

Federal rules led electronic health records astray. Time to reimagine them

STAT, Andrew Muchmore


The Department of Health and Human Services has a poor track record designing software — just think — and EHR software is several orders of magnitude more complex. As currently implemented and designed by committee, the existing ONC requirements are best described as spaghetti code.

Instead of simplifying and standardizing back-end data collection — which would be transparent to the doctor, nurse, or other user and would allow EHR designers to focus on clinical usability — ONC has instead opted to use electronic health records as a reporting tool instead of as clinical a clinical documentation tool, putting the design paradigm backwards.

Will Facebook and Amazon Need Quarantining After Covid-19?

Bloomberg Opinion, Lionel Laurent


Global giants like Facebook and Amazon are likely to emerge even bigger as a result of the coronavirus crisis. Should they, too, be locked down?

Measuring Drought in South America

NASA, Earth Observatory


As South America moves into autumn, several parts of the continent are facing rainfall deficits and droughts that might shrink harvests. Twin satellites from NASA and the German Research Center for Geosciences are providing fresh insights into the conditions.

Scientists develop “backpack” computers to track wild animals in hard-to-reach habitats

The Ohio State University, Ohio State News


To truly understand an animal species is to observe its behavior and social networks in the wild. With new technology described today (April 2) in PLOS Biology, researchers are able to track tiny animals that divide their time between flying around in the sky and huddling together in caves and hollow trees – by attaching little backpacks to them with glue.

These high-tech backpacks, which can communicate with each other and ground-based receivers, provided data for the popular study published on Halloween in 2019 showing that vampire bats developed social bonds in captivity that they maintained in the wild.

The wireless network developed by a team of engineers, computer scientists and biologists contains functions similar to what we find in our smartphones – such as motion detection and Bluetooth-style connectivity – at a fraction of the weight and energy consumption.

Mobile phone data and COVID-19: Missing an opportunity?

arXiv, Computer Science > Computers and Society; Nuria Oliver et al.


This paper describes how mobile phone data can guide government and public health authorities in determining the best course of action to control the COVID-19 pandemic and in assessing the effectiveness of control measures such as physical distancing. It identifies key gaps and reasons why this kind of data is only scarcely used, although their value in similar epidemics has proven in a number of use cases. It presents ways to overcome these gaps and key recommendations for urgent action, most notably the establishment of mixed expert groups on national and regional level, and the inclusion and support of governments and public authorities early on. It is authored by a group of experienced data scientists, epidemiologists, demographers and representatives of mobile network operators who jointly put their work at the service of the global effort to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

Whiskey, guns, and SpongeBob: The University of Virginia goes digital

C-VILLE Weekly, Ben Hitchcock


As coronavirus has swept the nation, universities across the country have had to go digital, ditching in-person class meetings in favor of video conferencing. The transition has come with plenty of thrills and spills: Clips have circulated of college students confidently striding naked through the frame, getting their hair braided, or taking bong rips while the professor rambles on. As the above anecdote from recent grad Alex Hendel suggests, UVA students and faculty have taken their fair share of digital pratfalls in the two weeks since online classes have begun.

Politics professor Allen Lynch sent an email to his class on Thursday afternoon, admitting that he had delivered his entire 75 minute lecture without pressing record. Only the first six seconds made it online. When a student pointed out the error, “my heart sank,” Lynch says.

Evaluating COVID-19 contact tracing apps? Here are 8 privacy questions we think you should ask.

Imperial College London, Computational Privacy Group


When it comes to contact tracing, this however requires to go beyond simple reassurances that the phone numbers aren’t recorded, that everything is encrypted, that pseudonyms are changing, or that the app is based on consent. Indeed, a large range of techniques exist to circumvent those protections. For instance, scores have been developed to re-identify individuals in location or graph datasets, session fingerprinting could be used to link a pseudonymous app user to an authenticated web visitor, and node-based intrusions would allow to track users.

PIH Partners with Mass. Governor’s Office on COVID-19 Response

Partners in Health


Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker announced a new initiative today to accelerate the state’s efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19, by dramatically scaling up the state’s capacity for contact tracing through a new collaboration with Partners In Health (PIH).

The Massachusetts COVID-19 Community Tracing Collaborative (CTC) is designed to not just flatten the curve, but bend the curve downward to more rapidly reduce the number of cases in Massachusetts.

The CTC is a partnership of four groups: MA COVID-19 Command Center, Commonwealth Health Insurance Connector Authority (CCA), Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH), and PIH.

Contingency Plans for CS Students in Large Classes

Communications of the ACM, Mark Guzdial


Alfred Thompson is a leader in high school computer science education in the United States. He has a popular blog where he recently requested, “Please blog about your emergency remote teaching” (see post here) (He’s using a phrase that many prefer to “online learning” for what’s happening during the Covid-19 crisis, see explanation here). Alfred is right. We ought to be talking about what we’re doing and sharing our practices. It’s way too early to call anything best practice, but by talking about it, we get better at it. Reflecting and sharing our teaching practices is a terrific way to improve CS teaching, which Josh Tenenberg and Sally Fincher told us about in their Disciplinary Commons.

I’m taking Alfred’s advice to tell you about our contingency plans in the large (260+ students) user interface software class that I’m teaching with Sai R. Gouravajhala. A lot of CS departments in the United States have enormous enrollments this semester. With so many students, it is inevitable that some of our students are going to get sick before the end of the current term. Even though our traditional students are young, some may be at-risk. Some may be taking care of ill relatives.

How sewage could reveal true scale of coronavirus outbreak

Nature, News, Smriti Mallapaty


More than a dozen research groups worldwide have started analysing wastewater for the new coronavirus as a way to estimate the total number of infections in a community, given that most people will not be tested. The method could also be used to detect the coronavirus if it returns to communities, say scientists. So far, researchers have found traces of the virus in the Netherlands, the United States and Sweden.

Analysing wastewater — used water that goes through the drainage system to a treatment facility — is one way that researchers can track infectious diseases that are excreted in urine or faeces, such as SARS-CoV-2.

One treatment plant can capture wastewater from more than one million people, says Gertjan Medema, a microbiologist at KWR Water Research Institute in Nieuwegein, the Netherlands. Monitoring influent at this scale could provide better estimates for how widespread the coronavirus is than testing, because wastewater surveillance can account for those who have not been tested and have only mild or no symptoms, says Medema, who has detected SARS-CoV-2 genetic material — viral RNA — in several treatment plants in the Netherlands. “Health authorities are only seeing the tip of the iceberg.”

Voxel51 // PDI: Measuring the Social Impact of the Coronavirus Pandemic



Voxel51 is tracking the impact of the coronavirus global pandemic on social behavior, using a metric we developed called the Voxel51 Physical Distancing Index (PDI). The PDI helps people understand how the coronavirus is changing human activity in real-time around the world. Using our cutting-edge computer vision models and live video streams from some of the most visited streets in the world, the PDI captures the average amount of human activity and social distancing behaviors in major cities over time.

Why Covid-19 has resulted in New Jersey desperately needing COBOL programmers

Quartz, Steve Mollman


In New Jersey, experts are now needed to fix COBOL-based unemployment insurance systems—more than four decades old—that are overwhelmed due to pandemic-related job losses. At a press conference yesterday, governor Phil Murphy asked for the help of volunteer coders who still knew how to work in COBOL.

Of course, as cyber-security expert Joseph Steinberg noted on his blog, such volunteers are likely well over 60 years old, making them especially vulnerable to Covid-19. Whether they would risk venturing out (or work on a volunteer basis, for that matter) to fix creaky systems that should have been updated decades ago is an open question.


Surviving the Coronavirus Infodemic: UW & WSU present a statewide conversation on healthy digital practices

University of Washington, Center for an Informed Public


Online April 9, starting at 4 p.m. PDT. “Join experts from the University of Washington and Washington State University for a livestream summit addressing coronavirus misinformation. You’ll have a chance to participate from home as panelists share tools and tips for concerned citizens to cut through
the confusion and build healthier information practices.”


European Space Agency: Submit an innovative proposal for characterising COVID-19 impacts

“How can EO data help with monitoring COVID-19 impacts on the society?” Deadline for proposals is April 17.

Future of Synthesis in Ecology Workshop

Santa Barbara, CA September 21-22. “Are you interested in shaping the future of synthesis in ecology and environmental science? We are seeking an interdisciplinary, diverse group of 100 participants across all career stages. Approximately 80 participants will be provided with full funding for travel and accomodations for 2 nights in Santa Barbara, CA.” Deadline to apply is May 1.

Attention stakeholders in education research.

Join a community-building initiative to change the research culture to improve rigor, transparency, and impact of education research.
Tools & Resources

Why Data Science Needs DataOps

RTInsights, Elizabeth Wallace


DataOps is a result of the advances in DevOps, but applying DevOps principles to data won’t get you DataOps. The DevOps cycle is an infinite loop between the planning and creating stages of software development and considers the unique abilities of software developers and engineers.

DataOps is a much bigger operation. Where DevOps brought together the development teams and the operations side, DataOps seeks to marry every part of a business into one pipeline. It democratizes data and ensures no one process grows in complexity beyond the capability of the data science team.

What you need to know about product management for AI

O'Reilly Radar, Pete Skomoroch and Mike Loukides


Edit note: The increasing push to adopt AI into product, across many industries, puts the intersection of AI and product management into sharp focus. Challenges abound: non-deterministic outcomes, uncertainty (schedule, accuracy, relevance), opacity (models can be difficult to understand and explain), fairness issues, and other factors make AI a difficult sell to decision-makers and upper management. Here, Pete Skomoroch and Mike Loukides layout, in detail and with helpful supporting examples, what makes AI different, how to address those differences, and how product managers can better align their efforts in pragmatic support of business goals.

Computing Researchers Respond to COVID-19: Running a Virtual Conference

Computing Community Consortium, CCC Blog, Helen Wright


The entire five-day event was done using a combination of commercial (Slack, Zoom,, Twitch) and custom services (especially for video streaming), with a social virtual experience hosted on a custom installation of Mozilla Hubs, an online platform for social VR experiences. We chose Hubs because it is web based and open-source, allowing it to be easily customized and accessible from almost any device (VR or not) using a modern web browser.

IEEE VR marks the first time that a major academic conference of this scale (almost 2000 participants) moved online and depended solely on a virtual environment platform to replicate both the 1:1 and social networking sessions that are an essential part of conferences.


Tenured and tenure track faculty positions

Call for Assistant Professor positions – WASP-HS

Umeå University, Department of Computing Science, and Wallenberg Foundations, Wallenberg AI, Autonomous Systems and Software Program on Humanities and Society (WASP-HS); Umeå, Sweden
Full-time, non-tenured academic positions

Center for Data Science Clinical Faculty

New York University, Center for Data Science; New York, NY

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