Florida State University

College of Social Sciences & Public Policy

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FSU Students Provide Virtual Support During Covid-19 Pandemic

Florida State University students are assisting the State of Florida in gathering data related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The university’s Emergency Management and Homeland Security (EMHS) program is providing services through activation of its Virtual Operations Support Team (VOST) at the request of the state’s Emergency Support Function 6 (ESF-6), which handles all mass care issues in Florida.

More than 100 students are sorting through the vast amount of information currently circulating to accurately identify trends in other states relating to health care, home health care, personal protective equipment (such as masks, gloves, and gowns) and food availability to homebound patients. By looking at data and trends in New York, Washington and California, the team can help decision-makers prepare for the expected swell of COVID-19 cases in Florida.

VOST volunteers mine social media, such as Twitter and Instagram, for public information on the pandemic. This is combined with traditional media reports and news aggregators, such as Google News and Reddit, to build “situational awareness” about the crisis. All of this gathered information is vetted and verified, and a team of faculty, staff and student analysts create daily situation reports for the Florida Emergency Operations Center (EOC).

As the state’s emergency response progresses, the mission will shift to monitoring social media in Florida for indicators of unmet needs – people who are unable to get food, medication, medical care and other critical goods and services.

“By gathering and filtering this information, we can provide simplified reports that answer key questions,” said David Merrick, director of EMHS program and the university’s Center for Disaster Risk Policy. “VOST volunteers have already read and reviewed thousands of tweets, posts and news articles, and will continue to do so. They are working shifts ranging from 30 minutes to a couple of hours and have the flexibility to come and go as their schedule allows.”

The “virtual” aspect of VOST makes it tailor-made for the current COVID-19 climate. Students, staff and faculty are all working remotely, coordinating activities via Slack, a free online messaging service, and using online databases to collect, catalogue and process data.

A current EMHS student, Benjamin Redifer, works at ESF-6 and suggested using VOST services to Emergency Coordinating Officer Peter Newman, who has worked with EMHS on a variety of projects over the past several years.

VOST, which was established in 2012, has been activated to support response and recovery efforts during several emergencies and natural disasters, including Hurricane Hermine, which struck the state in 2016, and Hurricane Irma in 2017.

As of March 31, 104 students had volunteered, including two from the University of Central Florida and one from the University of Florida.

“They are also in emergency management related programs at their universities, but those schools don’t have this type of involvement at the state level,” Merrick said. “So in addition to providing vital assistance to state officials, we’re also offering experiential learning to students, regardless of what program they’re in or what school they attend.”

Merrick noted that as social scientists within the FSU College of Social Sciences and Public Policy, Emergency Management and Homeland Security faculty, students and staff are uniquely poised to deliver both emergency management and intelligence-driven products in response to COVID-19, while affording students professional experience beyond the classroom in a time of increased social isolation.

Through the Askew School of Public Administration and Policy, the program teaches innovative courses in emergency management, homeland security and U.S. intelligence studies. It is part of the Center for Disaster Risk Policy, an applied research center in the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy focused on technical assistance and best practices in disaster management.