Multi-institutional project uses satellite data to determine incidences of cholera

Virginia Tech Professor Kevin Boyle is part of a multi-institutional project led by his former graduate Sonia Aziz that was just awarded one of three grants totaling $300,000 to quantify the benefits of using satellite data in decisions that improve socioeconomic outcomes for people and the environment.

Our study extends the theme of Sonia's dissertation, where we looked at how people responded to information about arsenic in drinking water wells, but rather than looking at existing information that's already placed by others, we're creating a new mode of information that helps people make decisions."

Kevin Boyle, Professor, Virginia Tech

The team - comprising principal investigator and Associate Professor Sonia Aziz, of Moravian College; Emily L. Pakhtigian, of Pennsylvania State University; Ali S. Akanda, of the University of Rhode Island; and Kevin J. Boyle - is developing an app that will use satellite data to provide an indication of where potential risks for cholera outbreaks exist.

"By getting people to load an app on their cell phone, we'll see if people will respond to the information provided," Boyle said. "The goal is to find out if people react to this information so that they're making better decisions to avoid water-borne disease, but at the same time, we have controls in place to find out whether people are just responding to a shiny new app or the health information it provides."

The grant was awarded by environmental and natural resource think tank Resources for the Future with the goal of advancing the work of the Consortium for the Valuation of Applications Benefits Linked to Earth Science (VALUABLES), a partnership between NASA and Resources for the Future.

Boyle, a faculty member in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the Willis Blackwood Real Estate Director, is participating in the project's efforts to collect and analyze information that facilitates understanding of how people use the app and respond to the information provided to facilitate scaling the app and use of the satellite information to widely reduce the incidence of cholera.

"With the current situation, the project has evolved to where we need to adjust for COVID-19," said Boyle. "We need to collect information to help us understand whether COVID is doing anything to influence results, which is critical for extrapolation of study results to populations at risk for cholera."

To clarify the impact COVID-19 has on the project, the researchers will spend the rest of 2020 adapting the app and preparing a survey that addresses these issues. The goal is to launch the field portion of the project in 2021.

"We expect to provide estimates of potential societal benefits of satellite data as well as necessary inputs for policymakers to design and implement effective policies to limit the incidence and spread of cholera," said Aziz and her colleagues. "Providing households with satellite-aided information regarding the nature of cholera risk should improve their averting decisions."

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