Enabling Celebration
In December 2020, Colorado Mesa University was determined to find a way to hold their graduation ceremony in person. With only two weeks to build and design a solution, we teamed up with the university and our collaborators at the Broad Institute to help make an in person commencement possible for graduates and their families at a time when many colleges and universities were still operating remotely.

If you take ten steps in any direction in the Greater Boston area during the month of May, odds are you will stumble into a graduation ceremony. Despite my grumbling about over-crowded trains and no longer short shortcuts through campus greens, after the last few years of non-existent, virtual, and hybrid celebrations, it was something of a relief to see the city filled with caps and gowns again this spring. This just wasn’t possible three years ago - or at least not without considerable effort, cooperation, and planning.

Our work with Colorado Mesa University began in the summer of 2020, when the school administration made it their top priority to get students back to campus full time for the upcoming fall semester. C.M.U. needed a way to safely host a 10,000 student population, as well as its administrative, academic, and support staff. To accomplish this, we tailored our customizable pathogen surveillance tool Lookout to meet the specific needs of the university.

C.M.U. Lookout’s Overview dashboard gave the administration a real time look into campus health in real time. This image has been populated with simulated data to protect student privacy.

Gathering together all available testing, sequencing, and contact tracing data into a single easy to navigate dashboard, C.M.U. Lookout provided the administration with information on specific student body outbreaks, while at the same time serving as a big picture view of general campus wellbeing. As a companion to Lookout, we built Scout - an app for students to self-report their symptom and contact tracing information directly into Lookout. In order to enter any classroom or common area, students would first have to demonstrate that they were cleared for entry via their Scout app.

Our Scout app allowed students to self-report symptoms and contacts.

With the information provided by Scout, the administration had a bird’s-eye view of the social and physical networks connecting the student body. From athletic teams to dorm halls to self-reported contacts, identified groups of students could easily be notified when they had potential contact with the virus, and targeted testing could be arranged to reduce the number of tests needed to keep students in classes.

Given the frequent updates to local, state, and federal guidelines and regulations informing campus policies during the early months of the outbreak, it wasn’t until two weeks before C.M.U.’s December commencement that the administration felt sure they could pull off the event in person. With a large outdoor venue secured and masking requirements in place, the next step became finding a way to ensure that everyone attending the ceremony had received a negative COVID test within the days leading up to graduation.

Graduation guests received a four digit code after submitting their COVID test results in order to gain entry to the venue.

We took on this challenge and were able to build, test, and implement Passport - a tool to streamline the check in process for guests of the graduates - all within the tight two week deadline. Guests submitted test results prior to the ceremony in exchange for a four digit clearance code. On the day of the ceremony, ushers could check guests in at the venue using the Passport app by typing in the code and confirming each attendee had a negative test result. This allowed tests to be screened hours before the ceremony and drastically reduced waiting times and risky crowding in the lines.

Making do with virtual events was an unfortunate reality for many institutions in the early days of the pandemic, but these alternatives were never a replacement for the real thing. For C.M.U.’s graduates and their families, being there mattered. With a high percentage of students at C.M.U. being the first in their family to graduate from college, for many, the ceremony was the culmination of the efforts and dedication of a multi-generational support system. Touching the diploma, taking the pictures, holding the flowers - it was all part of sharing the joy and achievement of the day with the people who got them there.

As we continue to develop Lookout to allow for pathogen tracking across a broad range of institutions, we look forward to enabling more events that keep communities together.

We’d love to hear what you’re working on, what you’re intrigued by, and what messy data problems we can help you solve. Find us on the web, drop us a line at hello@fathom.info, or subscribe to our newsletter.