L.A.’s COVID-19 challenge aims to give residents the data to make safer decisions

May 28, 2020

As cities reopen and Americans venture out to shop, eat, and visit parks again, they’re doing so without much information to go on. Is it safer to go to this beach or that hiking trail? There’s no way to know.

The city of Los Angeles has teamed up with a community of data-science professionals known as RMDS to try and change that. Together, they’ve launched a new challenge program for university teams, civic hackers, city data geeks and others. Starting this week, participants will compete for cash prizes as they build tools that can help L.A. residents make safer choices about which locations they choose to visit.

“What we’re trying to do with this challenge is recruit a lot of different ideas on something that we haven’t really thought through as city governments,” said Jeanne Holm, L.A.’s chief data officer. “As we reopen our economies and encourage people to get out and start reengaging with each other and with society, we haven’t really given people all the information in a way that they can understand how to be safe. All we have is, ‘wear a mask, stay six feet away, don’t go into crowded spaces.’ It’s not a lot of information.”

Through the challenge, Holm said, teams will try to put together data on things like the number of cars on streets or pedestrians in crosswalks with data on COVID-19 incidence and transmission to produce insights regular people can use to shape their choices.

“If I’m going out with the kids today and can see that this beach has a lot more people and clusters of COVID-19 infections around it, I can make a different choice that could keep me safer.”

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Participants in the COVID-19 Computational Challenge will have two weeks to build solutions, or even just parts of solutions, such as algorithms, that could help. Teams get mentors who specialize in public health, tech, data science, and other backgrounds, as well as training on epidemiological basics, mapping tools, and ethical considerations around using data.

While the challenge is focused on Los Angeles, Holm said the tools developed could be useful in other cities. Teams will need to share any code they develop and document their solutions so that people in other cities can build on their work and tailor it to their own cities.

“If somebody comes up with a solution that looks really promising,” Holm said, “we want to make sure that we can move forward to operationalize it in L.A., but also that New Orleans, New York, and Louisville have the ability to do that.”

Teams interested in participating in the challenge are encouraged to register here no later than May 29. Winners will be announced June 12. Email covid.challenge [at] rmdslab.com with any questions.