Winthrop University: Computer Science Student’s COVID Work Attracts National Data Award
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Computer Science Student’s COVID Work Attracts National Data Award

March 08, 2021

HIGHLIGHTS

  • Nelson was one of only four finalists, and the only one from South Carolina, in the Data Hero Awards’ Newcomer Category. On March 31, the group announced he had won for his category. 
  • The awards are presented by the Data Access, Transparency and Advocacy (DATA) Group, which recognizes people whose commitment to those values has improved their communities; in this case, specifically in light of COVID-19.  

ROCK HILL, SOUTH CAROLINA – Like many people worldwide, Philip Nelson has been following COVID-19 and all of the numbers associated with it, i.e., the number of cases and number of deaths, since March 2020. For awhile, the Winthrop University senior observed data from a major newspaper – until he noticed some inconsistencies for South Carolina.

“I discovered that the number of deaths were being put in all at once and not actually by the day they occurred, which was making it look like there was a spike in deaths,” Nelson explained. “I thought, ‘In that case, I’ll use my own data,’ which was a bit of a test for me because I hadn’t worked much with data.”  

Fast-forward to March 2021…  

Nelson’s online work to collect, program and communicate South Carolina COVID-19 cases, deaths, testing rates and reporting rates, even broken down by counties, has earned him national recognition. Nelson is one of only four finalists, and the only one from South Carolina, in the Data Hero Awards’ Newcomer Category. Voting was open through March 29.

Update: On March 31, Nelson learned he had won in his category. 

The awards are presented by the Data Access, Transparency and Advocacy (DATA) Group, which recognizes people whose commitment to those values has improved their communities; in this case, specifically in light of COVID-19.  

‘A human behind every single number’  

Nelson’s work began with a few graphs and manual data entry, but he soon realized he could call upon his course work – major: computer science; minor: digital information design – to create even more. He wrote scripts and learned how to use data tools and libraries, eventually using programming to pull data from S.C. DHEC, make it visually friendly and then post it to Twitter. He’s also programmed it to where the data automatically updates each day versus manually.  

“I’m tracking it how I’d like to see it and trying to find unique ways to visualize the data, to talk to people in a way that makes it make sense,” he said.  

One of the graphics that garnered him the most attention was an animation that functioned like a time lapse, showing the number of cases per county as they climbed to the top.  

State legislators, local media and public health researchers have referred to his data in their respective works.

“It’s been really cool to have a ton of verified followers, like reporters from The Washington Post and Bloomberg, people you look up to following you,” Nelson said. 

While he said it would be nice to win the Data Hero Award for Newcomers, for Nelson, knowing that he’s helped people is a reward in itself. He’s thankful for the faculty support as he’s learned new skills along the way.  

“I don’t care about the money, I don’t care about winning. It’s big for me, knowing I helped people,” Nelson said. “I wanted to track [COVID-19], but I’ve learned more than I thought I would.  

"I wish I’d learned this some other way than a pandemic. Sometimes when I look at the numbers, I try not to think about how it represents a person…but I don’t like to do that. There’s a human behind every single number.”  

Check out Nelson's work on Twitter.

For more information, please contact Nicole Chisari, communications coordinator, at 803/323-2236 or email chisarin@winthrop.edu.

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Last Updated: 10/4/21