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Data Innovation Lab seeks to provide insights into COVID, beyond

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New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer tries the virtual reality meeting space during a Nov. 21 visit to the Delaware Data Innovation Lab. | PHOTO COURTESY OF NCC

WILMINGTON – When New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer announced this past summer that he was allocating $5 million of the county’s federal CARES Act stimulus funds toward innovative ideas in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Patrick Callahan saw the opportunity to embark on a long-held dream.

Callahan, the founder of the Wilmington data analytics firm CompassRed, and his team had sought to create a program akin to the MIT Media Lab, a research laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where they could make “a lasting impact and apply innovative thinking to real world problems where failure is embraced along with success.”

With a pot of time-limited funds available through the county, Callahan said that CompassRed began designing what they called “The Moonshot Project.”

What came out of that workshopping was the Delaware Data Innovation Lab (DDIL), which was awarded $2 million from the county’s grant program in October. The nonprofit, which will operate independently of CompassRed, has hired around two dozen researchers in the matter of a few weeks to tackle a half dozen different issues.

The lab, now led by Anne Clauss and located at CSC Station on the Riverfront, will eventually bring together industry, academia, nonprofits, and governments to work on common problems.

Ryan Harrington, who leads CompassRed’s data science team and helped organize the DDIL’s first projects, explained that their focus was “COVID-adjacent.”

“We’re not trying to solve COVID. We’re not trying to come up with a cure. We’re trying to tackle the issues that come from the pandemic itself,” he said.

The issues include tracking New Castle County’s eviction filings to see where intervention efforts could keep families housed and building an interactive dashboard that will allow the county to better utilize data it’s collecting in a project to test its wastewater for traces of coronavirus.

Another project is tracking consumer confidence in travel and tourism along with online review data to see what makes travelers feel most comfortable amid the pandemic. Those insights will be shared with the state’s hospitality industry, which has seen steep revenue losses this year.

A project aimed at Wilmington will assess health, social and economic data for census tracts, which will help researchers draw conclusions about how external factors are affecting the spread of COVID-19 in the city’s communities.

After seeing that the federal applications for tuition aid to higher education were falling in Delaware and nationwide this year, DDIL researchers are compiling a dashboard that will assess where each state high school stands compared to prior periods and other schools in order to focus efforts on college entry.

Finally, a sixth project is building a 3D meeting space where researchers in different places can work together using virtual reality goggles, allowing for more interaction in their discussions.

While most of their efforts are focused on these “COVID-adjacent” issues right now, the DDIL is planning for a post-pandemic future, Clauss said. The $2 million grant will give it enough runway to get through the first quarter of 2021 or so, but additional academic, corporate or nonprofit partners will need to be found to fund an estimated $5 million to $7 million in research each year.

Who those funders will be remains to be seen, but Clauss noted that early in 2021 the DDIL would be working with global design consultant IDEO to determine its future focus areas.

By Jacob Owens


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