CS + Harvey: The Provost's “Nerd Pack”

Rice CS students use their computer science skills to help the Rice community during Hurricane Harvey.

Provost's NerdPack

Shortly after Hurricane Harvey dropped more than 51 inches of rain on Houston and Southeast Texas, a team of five Rice University students and alumni leaped into action. “There was a post on Facebook saying the Provost needed quantitatively minded volunteers,” said Max Grossman, a postdoctoral research associate in computer science (CS). “This was three or four days after Rice had been shut down. We were all lucky to have not been impacted by the flooding, and we were looking for some way to help.”

While Rice was closed, Max Grossman (CS), Rushi Bhalani (CS), Spencer Chang (CS), Napas Udomsak (CS), and Alex Hayes (STAT), who became known as the “Provost’s Nerd Pack,” met with Marie Lynn Miranda, the Howard R. Hughes Provost and Professor of Statistics. The Provost explained that information about Harvey’s impact on the Rice community was pouring in, but that the university needed a team to turn that raw data into useful insights for the administration.

“Basically,” Bhalani said, “we were told we shouldn’t talk about it. Our first task was to complete a data privacy training, and we established that we could only use secure internal systems to access the data and could only access the data from the Provost’s office.”

On Aug. 30, four days after Harvey made landfall, the Nerd Pack started by meeting with representatives of the Housing and Dining Department (H&D) to discuss the needs of their employees. Who was the hardest hit? What was the most effective strategy for managing childcare? What additional information did H&D need?

“The first report the Provost wanted was an assessment of home water damage in the Rice community, grouped by the different units in the university and by geographic location,” Grossman said. “Another report was on the amount of vehicle damage.”

These reports, as well as surveys deployed by the Office of IT (OIT), were used to match people with housing needs to those offering shelter or people without cars to those offering rides. “We also used geospatial plotting by lat/lon and zip code to gain insight into the hardest hit regions and understand who we should reach out to in the community. For example, we were able to isolate the three zip codes with the most damage,” Grossman said.

The Nerd Pack analyzed data for administrators showing the number of employees and graduate students with children. “If we were going to get Rice back on its feet as quickly as possible, the administrators knew we would have to offer some type of childcare as people returned to work,” Udomsak said. With the help of OIT, data was cleaned by Claire Osgood, data manager of the Children’s Environmental Health Initiative, and then securely linked to confidential HR information.

Seiichi Mastuda, Dean of Graduate and Postdoctoral studies; Mary Cronin, Associate Vice President for Human Resources; and Susann Glenn, Manager of Communications for H&D, explained what they needed while the Provost provided additional context. “One of the early requests was from Finance. They asked what percentage of people had water damage or housing damage, and how many people were evacuated. They were trying to determine how much temporary aid would be needed,” Chang said.

The Nerd Pack was asked to share data with the Rice Harvey Action Team (RHAT), to support standing up a phone bank for contacting those who had not responded to requests for information, and so might be in need of help. “We gave them an update every day, trying to indicate who was most at risk. They were calling people and filling out information for them over the phone,” Udomsak said. Rice Student Association president Justin Onwenu told the provost that hundreds of students wanted to help. “So, we started pulling information for another phone bank, this one matching student volunteers with staff who needed help cleaning out their flooded homes,” Bhalani said.

The “Nerd Pack” sent out lists of affected faculty members and classes to Deans and department chairs to help ensure that faculty in need got the support they needed and that classes could resume on September 5. “The provost emphasized that we should gather data centrally and then push it locally. We should allow departments and schools to determine how to best support their professors,” Grossman said.

Asked what he learned from the experience, Bhalani said, “One thing I got out of it was direction. I’d been confused about what I wanted to do. I knew I didn’t want to go the conventional software engineering route. This experience showed me that data science, particularly when used to support my community, was something I might really enjoy.”

Chang valued the chance to work with administration. “It wasn’t the most challenging technical problem I’ve worked on, but it was exciting to work so closely with the Provost and everyone on her team. It was really rewarding to see the tight loop between being asked for an analysis, seeing the Provost distribute it to the right people, and then seeing the decisions made based on my work, especially for those that were very concrete like hearing people get matched with housing that fit their needs.” Grossman even joined the Provost’s research team to continue studying the health impact of natural disasters and environmental factors in Houston.

If students are interested in working on similar projects, Chang recommended they attend Civic Hackathons: “You make a very visible impact when it’s for a civic cause. We immediately got to see how our work helped.”

“CS is all around us,” Bhalani said. “Harvey showed us the good CS can do for our university. The university and our broader community need data analysis to make decisions, and CS provides it.”

Alex Smalls