Date November 8, 2023
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At Brown University’s School of Public Health, collaborating against future contagion

A research project called MAPPS is convening a wide array of community members to better understand how social mixing contributes to virus spread, and how that may inform future pandemic response.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — While pandemic lockdowns helped mitigate the spread of COVID-19 to save lives, experts recognized later that they had other negative repercussions. Before the next pandemic, members of Brown University’s School of Public Health community are collaborating to develop a more targeted way of stopping disease spread that would allow life to proceed as usual — or at least without isolating individuals and shutting down as many communal spaces.

The project, called MAPPING@Brown, uses a smartphone app to study social interactions to determine how they shape disease transmission patterns. It involves tracking individual and crowd movements as well as social mixing — how, where and for how long people come together.

“Because infectious pathogens spread from person to person, our social interactions shape disease transmission patterns,” said Mark Lurie, an associate professor of epidemiology at Brown who is leading the Mobility Analysis for Pandemic Prevention Strategies (MAPPS) project.

A native South African, Lurie is an infectious disease epidemiologist who specializes in studying HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted infections and tuberculosis in sub-Saharan Africa. A common thread in his research is understanding the role of human migration and social interaction in epidemic spread. There’s currently little information on how many interactions people have in a day, Lurie said, and models of disease spread are mathematical computations often based on the assumption of random mixing.

“We’re attempting to pinpoint people’s place in space and time, and therefore their social interactions, to create more accurate predictive models based on observed human behavior,” Lurie said.

The project findings, he said, are intended to help inform public health responses to future pandemics.

“With fine-grained data on social interactions and effective predictive models, we could really understand in detail which behaviors are safe during a new pandemic and which are not,” Lurie said. “For example, should we make stairwells one-way? Should class size be limited, or the hours of operation of the cafeteria be expanded to decrease the density of mixing? These are the kinds of questions we will finally have some evidence to help answer.”

From Nov. 6 to 19, MAPPING@Brown is charting the social network within Brown’s School of Public Health building at 121 South Main St. in Providence. Participation is open to members of the public health community who spend any amount of time in the building, and each participant who opts in downloads a custom-created MAPPS app that shares data with the research team.

The project is backed by $1 million in funding from the National Science Foundation as part of a Predictive Intelligence for Pandemic Prevention Phase I development grant.

The right mix of social mixing data

Recent visitors to the School of Public Health may have noticed small white boxes mounted on walls and ceilings. The team installed approximately 2,000 of these beacons, and with the help of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi on participants’ phones, the system creates “spatiotemporal” mobility data, explained Guixing Wei, a project researcher. The team will look at factors like how often people interact with one another, how long they stay together, and when and where they meet — essential parameters for epidemiological modeling, Wei said.

To date, scientists have had little access to indoor movement data because GPS, which uses satellite technology, does not perform well indoors — part of what inhibited contract tracing during the pandemic. But the Bluetooth beacons in SPH will allow researchers to triangulate indoor locations.

“This is the biggest indoor movement and mobility study of its kind,” Wei said.

The team has continually refined the data collection process to not only be as accurate as possible, but also to safeguard privacy. The custom app, created for MAPPS in partnership with Brown’s Center for Computation and Visualization, collects just the bare minimum of demographic information, the scientists say.

A long-term objective for MAPPS is to access insights about people's movements or about social contacts without actually tracking individuals, said Julia Netter, an adjunct assistant professor of the practice of computer science, who coordinates the Socially Responsible Computing program in Brown’s computer science department.

“How to strip down information to obtain only what you need for a particular project or research question: This is currently an important area of research in computer science,” Netter said. “Bringing together those key insights into a project like MAPPS, where public health researchers are looking for specific kinds of data for their social mixing analysis and don’t need additional and potentially sensitive information about individuals, is really useful.”

Recognizing the questions about privacy likely to emerge, the MAPPS team has invited the SPH community to learn along with them as the project has progressed. A four-day workshop in January 2023, led by Lurie, Netter and co-researchers at Brown’s Institute for Computational and Experimental Research in Mathematics, explored the ethics of big data to create a framework for data collection and storage. The team has also hosted information sessions in the weeks leading up to the project — transparency has been key, Netter stressed.

During a fall meeting of associate professor Abigail Harrison’s class on the global burdens of disease, Lurie presented about MAPPS, explaining the motivation, the process, the goals. As expected, students had questions: Will the app only collect data when the participants are in the building? (Yes.) How can the findings be generalized to the urban population? (This feasibility study is focused only on the School of Public Health.) Can additional questions be added to the app? (Hopefully in the next phase.) 

Then Lurie called for a show of hands, asking students whether they would sign up for the app. Without hesitation, three-quarters of the class put their hands in the air. Lurie asked if any students did not want to be tracked; not a single hand went up. However, three or four students admitted that they were on the fence.

Class members acknowledged that Brown public health students, who tend to be eager to participate in research, were inclined to be interested in a project like this. One student remarked upon the low barrier to entry — in comparison to another study in which she’d participated, she said, “this seems very chill.” Another student agreed: My data is already being collected by so many apps, he said, so he may as well put it to good use.

Class was over. The students, before gathering their belongings, applauded Lurie’s pitch.

A community approach to public health research

A wide-ranging collaborative project, the MAPPS team spans specialties. In addition to Lurie, five other Brown faculty members co-lead the project, with research expertise in cryptography, the ethics of digital technology, mathematical modeling and applied statistical methods, computer engineering, and comparative effectiveness research. Eight faculty members, many from the School of Public Health but also with experience in computer science and behavioral science, play supporting roles.

Dozens of Brown students at every academic level volunteer with the project, too.

Maria Pieruccini, a second-year student in Brown’s master of public health program, is leading outreach efforts to boost student awareness. Pieruccini signed up not only because of MAPPS' alignment with her research, but also because of her personal experience.

“I think that the pandemic produced a lot of students like me who are interested in preparing for and even preventing the next pandemic scenario,” said Pieruccini, who was studying public health at Ohio State University when COVID-19 caused universities across the country to move to remove instruction. “That's what originally attracted me to this study — just the words ‘pandemic’ and ‘mobility analysis’ got my brain going!”

While Pieruccini notes that public health experts did the best they could with the information available at the time, she would like to avoid another mass lockdown.

“With MAPPS, we have the opportunity to build on that information to develop a much more articulate response,” Pieruccini said. “We would like the end product to be a smarter way to go about reducing spread so that we don't have to wonder if the response is worth the trade-offs. I envision a society that functions a little bit better than we did during lockdown with tools like this at our disposal to not only understand what we're doing, but really be able to justify it and get everyone on board.”

Lurie is at work applying for Phase 2 funding for MAPPS, a highly competitive process which would enable the team to move beyond the walls of 121 South Main St. to analyze social interactions across the entire Brown University campus and in other congregate settings. This month’s project at SPH will serve as an overarching proof of concept study, laying the groundwork for future research with ample opportunity for refinement and participant feedback.

“The National Science Foundation call inspired us to think about what kinds of research questions we need to answer so that when the next pandemic comes around, we have more informed, cost-efficient strategies than, say, closing universities,” Lurie said. “Never again do we want to be scrambling in the moment during a viral pandemic. It’s imperative that we make smarter decisions next time. That’s why we’re trying to do this now. And everyone at Brown has the opportunity to help.”