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Did you click on the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 dashboard? After billions of views, the researcher behind it has earned a top prize.

When the COVID-19 pandemic was brewing in Asia in early 2020, Lauren Gardner, a civil engineering professor at the Johns Hopkins University, and a graduate student saw the chance to mine the data and map an outbreak from the start.

She said at the time that it wasn’t supposed to scare people but to help “the public to understand something that is still largely unfolding on the other side of the world, to give them timely and reliable information.”

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The pair worked through the night and built a dashboard in the student’s Google Drive and posted about it on social media, crashing his system when too many people tried to access it at once. The dashboard was moved to a suitable online data host and now has been viewed billions of times by the media, governments, nonprofits, industry and the public around the world, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center where it’s now housed.

Gardner was recognized Wednesday with one of the top honors for scientists for leading the development team that now includes many students and professionals at Hopkins, including those in her research group at the Center for Systems Science and Engineering and at the Applied Physics Lab.

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She was awarded the 2022 Lasker-Bloomberg Public Service Award for the work, “which set a new standard for disseminating authoritative public health data in real time,” according to the announcement.

The Lasker Awards, handed out since 1946, are widely recognized as the highest honor for medical scientists by an American organization. Other categories include basic medical research, clinical medical research and special achievement in medical science. It comes with a $250,000 prize and recipients are known to go on and win a Nobel Prize.

Gardner joins several other Hopkins scientists in winning a Lasker, including Donald Brown, who won in 2012 for work in genetics and mentoring young scientists, and Dr. Gregg Semenza, who won in 2016 for work determining how the body maintains life-sustaining oxygen levels at the cellular level.

Lauren Gardner, a civil engineering professor at the Johns Hopkins University, and her team work to maintain the COVID-19 dashboard,  built by Gardner's team at the Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering. Gardner is being honored Wednesday with the 2022 Lasker-Bloomberg Public Service Award.

But Gardner’s work may be the most recognizable. It featured a world map with red dots to show where cases were climbing. As the dots grew in size, and the dashboard’s complexity grew, she added a U.S. map and many other features to calculate the toll of the virus — so far more than 600 million cases and more than 6.5 million deaths.

“We created this thinking it would be a resource for a relatively small group of people, the public health research community,” she said.

“That it’s relied upon by everyone around the world, as a scientist, as an engineer, it’s so rare,” Gardner said. “It’s incredible to be part of something so impactful. It highlights the significant value of data and the dissemination of facts in today’s climate of misinformation and politicization of public health.”

The dashboard was updated hourly with a mix of data Gardner and the student, Ensheng Dong, collected and processed from more than 3,500 sources, often reported in different ways.

Last week, however, the team was forced to change its methods and report fewer data points as states and localities have been reporting less data and less often. The case tallies have become less reliable as more people don’t test or rely on home antigen tests and do not report the results.

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The Maryland Department of Health still reports its COVID-19 data on weekdays. More than half of U.S. states report only once a week.

The Coronavirus Resource Center now reports data daily instead of hourly and sources data more narrowly than the Hopkins’ proprietary network.

Still, Gardner praised development of the rapid tests. She also said others, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are now providing useful data based on hospitalizations and deaths and other information, relieving some need for the dashboard. At some point, the Hopkins dashboard will shutter and leave the work completely to others, though she intends to help other organizations step up their abilities to collect and disseminate data.

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She said more work on that front is needed if such databases will be readily available for the next infectious disease outbreak from influenza or another virus, or for another public health needs such as opioid overdoses or abortion services.

“One of the biggest impacts was it created the expectation for it to exist in the first place and exist in an accessible way,” Gardner said.

“The question is who does it? I don’t think that’s resolved,” she said. “We will be helping others build capacity. ... The sad truth is to do it involves more than taking on the role. The data needs to exist in the first place and it needs to be standardized.”

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Ron Daniels, Johns Hopkins’ president, said the campus is “immeasurably proud” of Gardner for winning the Lasker.

“The COVID-19 dashboard that Dr. Gardner created embodies the core ethos of research universities to advance the common good through reliable knowledge and facts,” he said in a statement. “Thanks to Dr. Gardner’s vision and entrepreneurial spirit, she was able to bring vital information to billions and to help shape public policy at all levels of governance.”

Next Gardner said she plans to pursue projects around how behaviors affect infectious disease transmission, like vaccine hesitancy, which she had been exploring before the coronavirus pandemic.

More immediately, she’ll be at home recovering from her own COVID-19 infection.


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