CITRIS Confronts Pandemic Challenges and Continues to Innovate

The 20th anniversary of CITRIS coincided with the coronavirus pandemic and the shutdown of many in-person campus operations. In response, the institute pivoted key programming and research efforts, resulting in an exceptional year marked by challenge and innovation.

Since 2001, the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society and the Banatao Institute (CITRIS) has sought to develop and apply information technology that drives integrated solutions and addresses the pressing challenges facing California and the world. Below are some of the innovative programs that CITRIS has grown, relaunched, and expanded during the pandemic—all while working and learning remotely.

Pandemic Interventions

In response to COVID-19, CITRIS issued a special call requesting proposals for novel technology development and research designed to mitigate effects of the pandemic. By the April 2020 deadline, the program had received 97 applications and the following month CITRIS announced the first 25 seed-funding awards. These investigators have spent the last year tackling many challenges facing our new pandemic reality, including these highlighted projects:

  • Tracking the Coronavirus in Our Wastewater

UC Berkeley professor Kara Nelson led a research team to explore wastewater-based epidemiology to track the spread of COVID-19 via local sewage surveillance. This study is now being replicated throughout the UC system. 

 Researchers have rapidly assembled a new lab that, in conjunction with public health agencies and utilities throughout the Bay Area, will test the region’s wastewater for signs of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. (Video by Clare Major and Roxanne Makasdjian)
  • Prototyping respiratory solutions

UC Berkeley Professor Grace O’Connell worked in the CITRIS Invention Lab to develop methods for converting sleep apnea machines into ventilators for medium-risk hospital patients afflicted with COVID-19.

  • Enhancing Clinical Care for Remote COVID-19 Management

To assist clinicians in COVID-19 patient care, UC Santa Cruz professor Narges Norouzi and UC Davis professor Ian Julie demonstrated real-time video analysis with the ability to identify clinically useful information from a live video stream. 

  • Fighting the Spread of Misinformation

UC Berkeley professor Hany Farid and Berkeley Law’s Alexa Koenig worked to identify and quantify misinformation about COVID-19. Content was reviewed by a machine-learning algorithm to flag posts suspected of containing false or misleading information.

Harnessing the Power of Public-Private Health Partnerships

CITRIS Health recently launched two telehealth programs—ACTIVATE and Lighthouse for Older Adults—that are enhancing access to health care and technology for vulnerable Californians. ACTIVATE—which stands for Accountability, Coordination, and Telehealth in the Valley to Achieve Transformation and Equity—seeks to support rural, low-income agricultural workers in California’s Central Valley. Lighthouse for Older Adults supports low-income older adults living in affordable housing communities in Northern and Southern California. 

In spring 2021, ACTIVATE and Lighthouse launched mobile COVID-19 care teams to deliver vaccinations in collaboration with the nonprofits Livingston Community Health and Eskaton, respectively. Residents of senior living facilities and in the Central Valley both have high COVID-19 rates and insufficient access to vaccinations and testing. The CITRIS Health project teams are providing much-needed support by offering vaccine outreach and administration, testing, follow-up care, and general COVID-19 public health guidance.

“More than a million older Americans live in affordable housing units,” noted CITRIS Health Director David Lindeman. “Developing a national model for older adults to access telehealth through digital literacy training and infrastructure support is key to helping this vulnerable group lead active and engaged lives.”

COVID-19, Public Policy, and the Ethics of Surveillance 

In response to the pandemic, digital tracking interventions were rapidly deployed to monitor and mitigate the spread of COVID-19. The CITRIS Policy Lab assessed the public policy landscape of the ethics of surveillance during COVID-19, releasing a report that covered four areas of digital tracking interventions: exposure notification and digital proximity tracing, aggregated location data, symptom-tracking applications, and immunity passports.  

The report concludes that technology on its own cannot be employed as a singular panacea to address the pandemic. The report’s author, PhD candidate S.E. Freeman noted, “Any technological intervention will have to function as one component of a larger public health response, one that needs adequate resources and strong leadership to succeed.”
“This report examines the effects of technological interventions developed to combat COVID-19 on privacy and equity, especially for vulnerable populations,” said CITRIS Policy Lab Director Brandie Nonnecke. “The report fits into our broader mission to identify appropriate technology and policy strategies to maximize the benefits and mitigate the risks of emerging technologies.”

Meet EDGE in Tech

In March 2021, the Women in Tech Initiative at the University of California changed its name to Expanding Diversity and Gender Equity in Tech (EDGE in Tech). The new name reflects the initiative’s inclusive programming and outreach and seeks to expand efforts to recognize the importance of addressing the multifaceted challenges facing many under-represented communities working in technology fields. 

Speaking at the sold-out 2021 Women in Tech Symposium, UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ noted EDGE in Tech’s transformation. “This is a timely evolution, as the pool of applicants to Berkeley for the class of 2025 is the most diverse yet,” Christ said. “I welcome opportunities for EDGE in Tech at Berkeley and other UC campuses to encourage the unique perspectives these students will surely bring to their studies and to campus life.”

EDGE in Tech continues its hallmark programming, including its annual Women in Tech Symposium, Leadership Roundtable conversations, and the Athena Awards. Building on this strong foundation, EDGE in Tech is collaborating with Berkeley Global to host its Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion speaker series, facilitating student and faculty research, offering DeCal courses for UC Berkeley undergraduates, and partnering with the College of Engineering on the EMPOWER Program and mentoring programs to scale impact.

“Since announcing our new name at the Women in Tech Symposium last March, we have engaged two student data discovery teams to look at the participation and persistence of women and other under-included identities in STEM majors and maker spaces at Cal,” said EDGE in Tech Director Jill Finlayson. “We are also supporting pilot research that will kick off this summer to make mentoring programs more inclusive and effective for women of color. And of course, we are already planning and excited for next year’s Women in Tech Symposium in March 2022, with a focus on greentech.”

CITRIS Aviation Takes Off 

After launching in 2012 at UC Merced, CITRIS Aviation is taking off with research and training programs across all four CITRIS campuses in 2021. With the goals of enabling low-cost, sustainable regional transportation, facilitating freight and parcel transport, and augmenting workforce training, the emerging initiative is helping to shape an innovation-friendly regulatory environment in the skies. 

Launched in 2018, the CITRIS UC Davis Drone Academy for high school students organized an online drone flight simulator camp during the pandemic. The ten-week online class began in January 2021 and provided hand-held controllers and DRL flight simulator software for 36 high school students from under-resourced areas to use at home. It was the first time these students participated in a STEM program. 

This summer, CITRIS Aviation is partnering with UC Santa Cruz and UC Agriculture and Natural Resources to host DroneCamp 2021, a course that teaches students, researchers, and community members how to use drones for mapping and data collection.

Beginning in 2023, UC Merced professor Erin Hestir will partner with NASA to deploy a suite of aerial instruments to collect high resolution images of South Africia’s Cape and its coastline. The Marine, Freshwater, and Terrestrial Biodiversity Survey of the Cape (or BioSCape) campaign offers CITRIS researchers access to NASA’s cutting-edge technology to measure the biological diversity of this unique and fragile ecosystem. 

Building a Better Blockchain in California 

In 2020, CITRIS Executive Director Camille Crittenden and other members of the Blockchain Working Group wrapped up their research and final report, presenting it to the California legislature in July 2020. The report noted that blockchain technology—a decentralized store of data authenticated across a network of users—could be used for a variety of health applications, including providing a trustworthy repository for information about vaccine availability and distribution. 

In October 2020, the CITRIS Policy Lab published the report, Blockchain, Digital Identity, and Health Records: Considerations for Vulnerable Populations in California. Additional use cases offered in the report that could be potentially implemented in the coming years include tracking agricultural products throughout the supply chain to authenticate their provenance and reducing waste from potential outbreaks of contamination. Crittenden discusses this and other examples in a recent podcast episode in the series “All About Blockchain,” produced by Ripple’s University Blockchain Research Initiative.

“As the world faces extraordinary challenges, we are pleased that CITRIS is able to harness the imagination and resourcefulness of faculty, staff, and students across the four campuses to reduce the worst effects of the pandemic and charge ahead into a more equitable, sustainable, technology-enabled future,” said CITRIS Director Costas Spanos.