Work life

Creating informed responses: Berkeley's computing and data science in action

By Kara Manke

On April 7, Nobel laureate Saul Perlmutter, director of the Berkeley Institute for Data Science, and Michael Lu, dean of Berkeley’s School of Public Health, joined a panel of Berkeley faculty to discuss how data is guiding research on the COVID-19 pandemic.

From understanding the impacts of public health interventions on fighting COVID-19 to seeking out new drug targets and vaccines to studying the virus’s possible effects on the 2020 U.S. presidential election, UC Berkeley researchers are using the tools of data science to solve some of the most pressing challenges posed by the pandemic.

In a live webcast on Tuesday, April 7, an interdisciplinary cast of Berkeley faculty members joined Nobel laureate Saul Perlmutter , director of the Berkeley Institute for Data Science, and Michael Lu , dean of Berkeley’s School of Public Health, to discuss how data is guiding our society’s response to the pandemic and how more and better data is needed to help us emerge from the crisis.

Implementing widespread and rapid testing remains one of the most crucial goals of pandemic response, said Maya Petersen, an associate professor of biostatistics and epidemiology, and Michael Eisen, an adjunct professor of genetics and development. With more widespread testing, lives could be saved by more effectively isolating those who are infectious, while helping the economy by allowing healthy people to re-enter the workforce, they said.

Petersen and her colleagues are currently working with available data on COVID-19 hospitalizations to help local governments make public health decisions, while Eisen described how the biomedical field is using genomic data to identify potential drug targets or vaccines for the virus.

But the uses of data extend beyond guiding direct public health and medical interventions. Data on businesses and employment can be used to inform the policies that are being implemented to keep individuals and small companies afloat through the shelter-in-place period, said economics professor Emmanuel Saez.

Similarly, better cybersecurity and digital identification systems could be implemented to allow people to vote over the internet, preventing potential voter suppression in the 2020 election that might be caused by virus fears, said Henry Brady, dean of Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy.

Jennifer Chayes, associate provost of the Division of Computer, Data Science, and Society and dean of the School of Information, said experts across campus are examining this crisis from many vantage points, looking at how it is playing out in society now and how it will affect our lives further down the road.

“COVID-19 is a shock to our society, and we have (researchers) who really want to connect deeply with the community and with the population of California to help us through this,” Chayes said.