University of South Florida


USF engineers awarded NSF grant to fight COVID-19 using big data

A person working at a computer with data information

A team of researchers from the University of South Florida College of Engineering is developing a digital tool to give government agencies, researchers and health professionals unparalleled insight into COVID-19.

The project, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), will collect, synthesize and visualize comprehensive coronavirus data from around the world. Using natural language processing and machine learning, the tool will be able to identify connections in the data and give users a unique view of evolving trends related to the pandemic. USF engineers say the hope is to provide front-line researchers and policy makers access to information more quickly and more organized than ever before.

“As academic researchers are writing journal articles around the world, and hospitals are reporting cases and data related to the pandemic, we will be able to gather all of those data streams and find connections among them,” said principal investigator Sylvia Thomas, associate professor of electrical engineering. “That insight is incredibly valuable in helping advance our understanding of the pandemic and could lead to improved treatment, tracking and prevention measures.”

Sylvia Thomas

Sylvia Thomas, USF associate professor of electrical engineering.

Tempestt Neal

Tempestt Neal, USF assistant professor of computer science and engineering.

Thomas, along with co-principal investigator Tempestt Neal, assistant professor of computer science and engineering, have partnered with GraphAware, Inc., a company that specializes in data processing and visualization. By combining Thomas and Neal’s academic research with GraphAware’s existing digital infrastructure, the team expects to quickly and efficiently create and deploy validated research-based solutions.

A graphic depicting a person holding data streams

Using natural language processing, GraphAware's Hume software will extract words and phrases from COVID-19 data streams.

The $200,000 award is part of NSF’s Rapid Response Research program, designed to mobilize the scientific community to better understand and develop measures to respond to the virus. For the USF faculty members, it’s an opportunity to further their research while working toward solutions that could impact the lives of millions.

“Knowing that this project has the ability to affect the entire world is really incredible,” Neal said. “We’re really looking forward to making a difference and applying what we know about data science to this problem. And I’m thrilled to have the chance to partner with Dr. Thomas, as well as our industry partners, to tackle the problems we’re facing right now.”

While this project is designed to have immediate impacts on the fight against COVID-19, the tool will also be able to be applied to a variety of different areas and data streams. By interlinking information sources from around the world, the team hopes to build an open-access resource capable of detecting data trends to give front-line workers early warning of future problems.

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