UNIVERSITY of WISCONSIN–MADISON: Off to a busy start, data institute responds to COVID and seeks director

The American Family Insurance Data Science Institute’s first two years have been nothing if not eventful.

Last spring, as the campus and state shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, AFIDSI responded to the need for mathematical modeling to guide policy decisions and public health outreach. Within weeks, the institute had convened a team of leaders and experts from across the U.S. The COVID-19 Research Group met daily in the early weeks of the pandemic, creating models and sharing findings as quickly as possible.

“The institute has shown strong leadership during the pandemic, pulling together a team of more than a hundred people to further understanding of COVID-19 and inform campus mitigation efforts,” says Amy Wendt, associate vice chancellor for research.

Leadership is the next big project for the institute, which is recruiting a permanent director. Applications are due April 15.

Meanwhile, AFIDSI staff are working with the School of Medicine and Public Health to identify potential hotspots for virus transmission, using natural language processing techniques with testing and contact tracing data. With the Wisconsin State Lab of Hygiene, research group members are supporting efforts to detect and measure COVID-19 variants through wastewater surveillance.

In partnership with AFIDSI, Michael Ferris and Corey Jackson, both with the School of Computer, Data and Information Sciences, are supporting vaccine logistics with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services and the Wisconsin National Guard. To overcome disparities that stem from health, economic and educational inequities, as well as discrimination, Jackson and Ferris have begun work on a recommendation engine to ensure vaccines are allocated fairly.

In addition to campus collaborations, the institute is working closely with American Family Insurance to create the American Family Funding Initiative.

“The American Family Funding Initiative is supporting fundamental data science research, including third-wave AI systems and a variety of novel machine learning research projects, with researchers from multiple campus departments,” said Whitney Sweeney, AFIDSI assistant director. “The initiative also supports applied research. To date, more than $2 million has been awarded through this initiative to 16 data science research teams.”

Jon Eckhardt, associate professor in the Wisconsin School of Business, heads one of these teams. With support from the American Family Funding Initiative, his team at the Entrepreneurship Science Lab is using data-based insights to better prepare student entrepreneurs for successful careers that add to the economic prosperity of their communities.

“Support from American Family Insurance is crucial to the success of the lab,” says Eckhardt. “We are excited to be working with Dan Reed, Glenn Fung, and other innovators at AmFam to create opportunities for our students, graduates and communities.”

The future of data science will be driven by insights from all disciplines and AFIDSI is committed to working across campus. Iain McConnell, a data scientist at the institute, is collaborating with the Institute for Research on Poverty to improve cross-referencing of data from multiple social service programs, so researchers can better understand how people use the services offered through these programs. The ultimate goal of this work is to reduce poverty in Wisconsin.

“The American Family Insurance Data Science Institute embodies the Wisconsin Idea, that the impacts of UW–Madison must ripple beyond our classrooms and labs into the community,” says Steve Ackerman, vice chancellor for research and graduate education. “Data science is a high priority for campus because of its potential to move our cutting-edge research toward the goal of solving society’s most difficult problems. The institute is actively leading work that brings people together to achieve this goal.”

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