Guest column

Houston data startup analyzes COVID-19 risks as companies return to work

Statistical Vision shares key data points it's watching as companies return to work amid the COVID-19 outbreak. Getty Images

In an effort to better help our clients, and frankly all of us, maneuver these uncertain times and to better understand what the upcoming months are likely to bring, we have applied our data science expertise to create a structural model of the spread of COVID-19. The aim of the national model is to determine specifically how mobility and weather impact the local transmission rates while controlling for population density, population immunity rate and the fact that people are taking more precautions.

When I discuss COVID19 with other Houstonians, I'm often asked "We're going back to work — there's traffic! Why haven't cases spiked?"

First, it is worth noting that cases and deaths have increased again in Harris County. But, the question is still valid. Greg Abbott started allowing things to open six weeks ago and we are only starting to see a rise now.

Fortunately, our model (being quantitative and multivariate) can explain why cases may not have 'spiked' the way that was expected. There are four main reasons why cases are only starting to tick up now:

  1. There has not been a 'spike' in people leaving their homes. While Greg Abbott did allow restaurants, movie theaters and malls to begin re-opening on April 30, there was not a sudden spike in people leaving their homes. Indeed, the "people staying home" index, according to Google Mobility Data, peaked on April 1 at 22 percent above normal and has gradually decreased ever since. In Harris County, the extent people are staying at home stands at 14 percent above normal as of May 29 (unfortunately, Google Mobility Data reports 7 to 10 days after the fact.) So, from the peak 'stay at home' measure, we were only a third the way back to normal last week.
  2. Temperatures have increased. Our model indicates that warmer temperatures decrease the transmission rate of COVID19. Our model does not posit a mechanism, but we can rule out both geographic explanations and behavioral explanations, which leaves us with the compelling reason to believe that temperatures matter.
  3. People's behaviors when they do go out have changed. These changes — everything from masks, to skipping hand shakes, to readily available hand sanitizer, to keeping your distance, to staying home when you're feeling sick — have an important and measurable impact on the spread.
  4. Kids are not back in school yet. While our model does not directly measure the impact of kids being in school, the estimate our model produces measuring the importance of staying at home (2.6) is higher than they should be (2, mathematically speaking). We suspect that's because we are missing an important cohort that started staying at home at the same time mobile phone users started staying at home - kids that don't have cell phones. So, while it may seem like we are most of the way back to normal, with regards to going out, being summer time in Houston, kids are not at school, which is likely keeping the rate of spread down.
All of that said, the gradual increase in people leaving their homes has had an impact. And now, cases and deaths are starting to increase. Our model reminds us that there are a variety of factors impacting the transmission rate. Right now, temperatures, people's behaviors and schools being out work in our favor. Come September, two of those three will turn the other way.
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Michael Griebe is the co-founder and chief statistical officer at Houston-based Statistical Vision. To read more about the company's initiative, click here.

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Building Houston

 
 

The Ion has fresh funds to commit to its accelerator programs. Courtesy of Rice University

The Ion — a rising hub for innovation being developed in Midtown by Rice Management Company — has received a $1.5 million grant to go toward supporting its startup accelerator programs.

The grant from the Economic Development Administration is a part of the organization's Build to Scale (B2S) program and will also benefit three accelerators: the Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator, the Rice Alliance Clean Energy Accelerator, and DivInc Accelerator.

"Receiving this grant is a big win for our city — furthering the Ion's opportunity to bring together leading minds to solve some of our toughest challenges," says Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance, in a news release from Rice. "We believe that it's a fully collaborative approach that will lead to accelerating energy innovation and sustainable solutions."

All three of these accelerators will be represented in The Ion's Accelerator Hub and will work in collaboration, according to the release, in The Ion, which is expected to open in 2021 with cohorts set to open applications in early 2021.

"We are really excited about working together with DivInc and the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship to realize the full potential of the opportunities that these funds will help unleash," says Jan Odegard, interim executive director of the Ion, in the release.

The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator has cycled through two rounds of cohorts — first focusing on resilience and mobility in Cohort 1 then air quality, water purification, and other cleantech in Cohort 2.

The 12-week Clean Energy Accelerator was only recently announced by The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship at the annual Energy Tech Venture Forum earlier this month. The program is established to support Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner's Climate Action Plan.

Meanwhile, DivInc's accelerator comes out of a partnership with the Austin-based nonprofit and The Ion, which was announced in spring of this year. The goal with this program is to increase access to minority entrepreneurs.

"DivInc embodies the mindset that this generation and all the generations of innovators to follow must be inclusive of people of color and women entrepreneurs – who will build successful scalable growth companies to address tomorrow's challenges and opportunities," says Preston James, chief executive officer at DivInc, in the release.

"By removing the barriers that currently exist, we unleash this untapped potential and lift Houston to new economic heights. To do this we must establish strong collaboration with partners like The Ion, Rice University, the EDA and many others."

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