Headshot of Debra Laefer
  •  Debra Laefer (Principal Investigator) – Professor of Urban Informatics at CUSP
  • Thomas Kirchner (Co-Principal Investigator) – NYU School of Global Public Health

Researchers are already in the field recording potential hot spots outside hospitals and mass transit hubs to record what people are touching — and thus the most likely surfaces to carry the coronavirus.

Virus mapping dates to 1854, when John Snow traced the source of a cholera epidemic in London to infected wells. NYU teams, however, will use geospatial data to pioneer a more accurate and effective tool for this virus: 3D mapping.

This study will also lay the groundwork for machine learning models to speed the analysis of how a virus spreads in urban areas. Its documentation and modeling could easily be applied to airports, grocery stores, and playgrounds — anywhere large groups of people come, touch things, and leave.

The lead investigator for the DETER project is Debra Laefer, a professor of civil and urban engineering at NYU Tandon who also serves as a professor of urban informatics and director of citizen science at its Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP); the co-leader for the project is Thomas Kirchner, director of the NYU mobile health lab and an assistant professor of social and behavioral sciences at the NYU School of Global Public Health.

Project Abstract

The DETER project will collect data sets that can transform the study of virus transmission from two-dimensional mapping exercises into highly detailed, three-dimensional propagation models to better equip communities with the information they need for improved disease tracking, community-transmission prediction, and preventative disinfection strategies. The project will provide new types of data related to human behavior when leaving healthcare facilities that will allow more localized disease transmission models to be created. The project will track human behavior in terms of where people go (e.g. bus, coffee shop) and how they physically interact with the environment (i.e. what they touch and for how long). The project will immediately make publicly available data that could be critical for modeling virus-based outbreaks including predicting further community transmission during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Community-transmission is responsible for over three-quarters of the COVID-19 cases in the US. Yet, current models do not consider localized behavior to predict virus transmission or the extent of propagation within individualized settings and their surrounding communities. The DETER project will provide such data and demonstrate new three-dimensional means to understand community-level risk. The DETER project investigates how generalizable human behavior is in terms of destination selection after visiting a healthcare facility and the extent and types of hand-based interaction with the built environment. These questions will be answered through tracking individuals when leaving healthcare facilities and recording touch-based behaviors on public transportation and public accommodations. The project will provide a transferable framework and a data integration strategy that can be adopted into a wide variety of three-dimensional models and schema that will help equip researchers and local communities with better methods for predicting community-based transmission.