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Calvin University employee creates a 'risk calculator' to help people track COVID-19

When will it be safe to meet in groups of 10 or more again? A Calvin University employee has created an interactive way to answer that question.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — As COVID-19 continues to spread, a lot of people have unanswered questions. 

Many of those questions pertain to the idea of social distancing: Is it that important I stay cooped-up inside my home? Do I really need to avoid small social gatherings? How truly at risk am I?

Unfortunately, there are no verified answers to those questions everybody can agree upon, yet.

But, an employee at Calvin University has developed an interactive tool that is already helping people get questions answered, while also better informing them about known risks.

Credit: Neil Carlson
Neil Carlson created the Interactive Dashboard and the Risk Calculator on his home computer.

"COVID-19 is a little bit like a bad horror movie with a dishonest trailer," said Neil Carlson, who is the director of Calvin University's Center for Social Research. "It fools us into thinking that it's more innocuous than it is."

Carlson's metaphor isn't his way of making light of the coronavirus pandemic. He's very aware of the current circumstances.

Perhaps better than most.

"This is not just a biological epidemic," added Carlson. "It's a social problem and requires social solutions."

That's why Carlson created an interactive dashboard that tracks the spread of COVID-19 in a precise, hyper-local way. 

Carlson asked the question, "What are the odds that a meeting of a given size will actually have an infected person in the room? Or, what are the chances that you draw a group of people that are all healthy?"

Carlson then created what he calls a Visual Meeting Risk Calculator, which projects how risky one's social behavior can be based on the estimated infection rate in the region one lives and works in.

"It has some very useful, powerful math in it," added Carlson.

The Dashboard draws on the public work of the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD.  

Carlson says the calculator was designed to help people understand on a local level. The tool helps people asses the risk of holding a meeting, or large social gathering, using the most-up-to-date numbers of COVID-19 related deaths in their area.

"For example, take Kent County in Michigan at the time of the first death in the county on Saturday, March 21. The visualization shows that a meeting of 100 people on that date would have had an 11.5% chance of having one infectious person in it," said Carlson. "Now, if we were to change the number to 5 deaths in the county, that same meeting of 100 people has a 45% chance of someone infectious being in that room.

"You can play with the estimates. You can change the population for a different area and change the number of reported deaths."

While Carlson created the calculator, he says two former Calvin students have been hired to update the website visualization daily, as well as download and update all the most recent data provided by Johns Hopkins.

"Right now, you are taking a gamble going into a public space, or just even individually going around and meeting with a hundred people in a day," said Carlson. "If you're close enough to pick up the virus from them, every additional person you add is increasing the risk that you've run into someone who, unaware to themselves, perhaps, they may be s-symptomatic

"Don't use [the calculator] to rationalize risky behavior," warns Carlson. "I hope the calculator will serve more as creating intelligibility about why public health officials are recommending the steps that our governor has taken and that of other other states and localities."

Credit: Calvin Chimes
If anybody wishes to share ideas with Neil Carlson, you're welcome to send him an email: csr@calvin.edu

In addition to the Calculator, the Center for Social Research (CSR) website features many other digital visualization tools that allow users to see how the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic is happening on a country-by-country and state-by-state level.

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