Challenging times provide opportunities for universities to serve their communities

05-15-2020 07:00 AM
Esri Contributor
2 0 1,035

As disruptive as the response to COVID-19 has been for higher education, one inspiring aspect has been the tendency of colleges and universities to turn challenges into opportunities.  Much of this has come in the form of using the grim reality of the virus to encourage research and innovation.  A quick exploration of the applications submitted to Esri's COVID-19 Resources Gallery shows that higher education institutions are a prime contributor of helpful hubs, dashboards and web applications, to say nothing of the invaluable research into treatments, vaccines and other responses underway at higher-ed affiliated institutions around the world.  Some institutions, however, have focused the GIS skills of their students, faculty and staff on the addressing the unique needs of their community as they struggle with the impacts of the virus response.  The University of California Davis is a great example.

As 2020 got underway, Karen Beardsley, a professor of GIS and director of global professional programs with UC Davis Global Affairs, was looking forward to leading a group of enthusiastic students to Bhutan for the annual GIS in the Land of the Thunder Dragon summer abroad program.  When the response to COVID-19 resulted in the summer trip being canceled, she turned her disappointment into constructive action by linking former program students with the Yolo County Food Bank.  The students are using the GIS skills they developed in Bhutan to help the food bank efficiently distribute food to individuals and families impacted by COVID-19 mitigation.  Mary Ellen Rosebrough, GIS Coordinator for Yolo County, has implemented a field operations workflow to efficiently deliver food to at-risk individuals within the county.  At-risk individuals can fill out a Survey123 survey to request food deliveries, and volunteer delivery drivers submit surveys to correct information for future distributions.  The UC Davis students (16 at last count) validate and correct both datasets to make sure that this needed food is able to reach the correct individuals.  The delivery assignments themselves are managed through Workforce for ArcGIS, so students help keep the assignments layer up-to-date as well, especially the verification of any declined assignments, as these will often result from data issues.


In addition to the student data management contributions, UC Davis faculty and staff are also getting into the act.  Dr. Beardsley is working on an ArcGIS Hub for the food bank so that all their applications and data layers can be accessed more easily, while Carlos Barahona, a systems architect in the department of Environmental Science and Policy, has taken over the task of keeping the food bank volunteer layer updated in Workforce.


The contributions of the UC Davis students and staff have been a force multiplier for the county and food bank staff, resulting in over 13,000 food deliveries to at-risk individuals who would have otherwise had to leave their homes to get groceries.  It isn’t an overstatement to say that this could have made the difference in life and death.  To find out more, check out this article on the UC Davis website.

Share Your Contributions

Has your institution leveraged its GIS resources to help solve the local challenges of the COVID-19 response?  If so, please share the details with us through this survey. The UC Davis/Yolo County Food Bank collaboration is a great example of universities taking the initiative to help meet local needs, but it is far from the only one. With that said, we'd love to build a story map that shows the great work that higher education is capable of when faced with adversity.