Research Brief

RAPID: Visualizing Epidemical Uncertainty for Personal Risk Assessment


The National Science Foundation RAPID grant for this research was obtained by Rumi Chunara and Enrico Bertini, professors in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering. 

COVID-19 is one of the most deadly and fastest transmitting viruses in modern history. In response to this pandemic, news agencies, government organizations, citizen scientists, and many others have released hundreds of visualizations of pandemic forecast data. While providing people with accurate information is essential, it is unclear how the average person understands the widely distributed depictions of pandemic data. Prior research on uncertainty communication shows that even common visualizations can be confusing. One possible source of inappropriate responses to COVID-19 is the lack of knowledge about personal risk and the nature of pandemic uncertainty.

The goal of this research is to test how people understand currently available COVID-19 data visualizations and create communication guidelines based on these findings. Further, the researchers will develop an application to help people understand the factors that contribute to their risk. Users are able to interact with the application to learn about the impact of their actions on their risk. This research provides immediate solutions for teaching people about their personal risk associated with COVID-19 and how their actions influence the risks of others, which could improve the public's response and decrease fatalities. Additionally, this work supports decision making for future pandemics and any subsequent outbreaks of COVID-19 or other viruses.

Specifically, the research team, in an effort to understand how people respond to uncertainty about the nature of the pandemic, is testing the effects of currently available visualizations on personal risk judgments and behavior. By studying how changes in factors influence risk perceptions, the research can contribute to understanding how people conceptualize compound uncertainties from different sources (e.g., uncertainties associated with location, time, demographics and risk behaviors). The researchers are using this information to produce a visualization application that allows people to change the parameters of a simulation to see how the resulting changes affect their risk judgments. For example, users in one city are able to see the pandemic risk to individuals of their age in their zip code and then see how that risk would change if the infection rate increased or decreased.

The aim is to promote intuitive understanding of the epidemiological uncertainty in the forecast through participants? experimentation with the application. While in line with current recommendations for intrinsic uncertainty visualization, this work is the first of its kind to test the effect of user interaction to convey uncertainty through visualization.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.