March 23, 2020 | Matt Kucinski

An empty meeting room of chairs

Is it that important that I stay home from work right now? From other social gatherings, even smaller ones? Am I really that at risk? When will it be safe to meet in groups of 10 or more again?

These are questions many people are asking. But questions that few have found an answer to, or that all can agree upon.

Neil Carlson, the director of Calvin University’s Center for Social Research, is digging deep into the data to find the answers to these pressing questions. He’s created an interactive dashboard that tracks the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and better informs people about known risks. The newest feature he developed this weekend is a visual meeting risk calculator. Essentially, it projects how risky one’s social behavior can be based on the estimated infection rate in the region one lives and works in.

Risky business?

“I hope this is helpful for creating some context for why public health officials and statisticians are alarmed when the general public is dismissive of the risks of exponential growth,” said Carlson.

The dashboard draws on the generous public work of the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University. The meeting risk calculator is inspired by a widely-read blog post by Tomas Pueyo of Course Hero. The calculator helps people understand on a local level how to assess the risk of holding a meeting using their own knowledge of the most up-to-date numbers of COVID-19 related deaths to date in those specific areas. The tool may help team leaders—such as business owners and pastors--weigh the importance of holding an in-person meeting or gathering.

“Take what we know about the infectiousness and mortality rate of COVID-19 and combine it with the total population of a particular area, the total number to date of deaths related to COVID-19, and we can calculate the likely number of infected people in that geography (prior to the impact of social restrictions). Following Pueyo’s example, we treat our meeting as a random draw of X people from that population, with a certain chance (the infection rate) of drawing an infected person,” said Carlson. “For example, take Kent County in Michigan at the time of the first reported death in the county on Saturday, March 21. The visualization shows that a meeting of 100 people on that date would have an 11.5% chance of having one infectious person in it. Later, if there are five deaths in the county, that same meeting of 100 people has a 45% chance—nearly ‘a flip of the coin’—of someone infectious being in that room.”

Using data as a guide

In addition to the meeting risk calculator, the CSR site features digital visualization tools that allow users to see how the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic is happening on a country-by-country and state-by-state level. CSR is taking suggestions for other models that would be helpful to develop as well. Someone can suggest a model by emailing or commenting on the CSR Facebook page.

CSR is researching data needed for comparisons of COVID-19 to past epidemics, and will soon include per capita rates of COVID-19 infection for US states. Referrals to new public data sources are welcome.

To request an interview with Neil Carlson, contact Matt Kucinski, associate director of public relations, at 616-307-7429 or

About CSR
Started in 1970, Calvin University’s Center for Social Research (CSR) is a valued learning partner for all who seek wisdom-driven social research and development. The center conducts social-scientific research projects, taking data from collection to reporting, through focus groups, statistical analyses, program evaluations, maps, interactive data visualizations, surveys, and more. The Center conducts and collaborates on several large research projects and several dozen smaller projects annually for academic, public-sector, nonprofit, religious, and business organizations.

About Calvin University
Founded in 1876, Calvin University is a top-ranked, liberal arts university that equips its nearly 3,600 students from 45 U.S. states, 63 countries and seven Canadian provinces to think deeply, to act justly, and to live wholeheartedly as Christ’s agents of renewal in the world. Calvin offers 100+ majors and programs, including graduate-level offerings in accounting, education, and speech pathology and audiology. Calvin students engage in intensive internships, community-based service learning, and significant research that results in publishing and presenting alongside world-class faculty.

And the university’s 400-acre campus, located in the vibrant city of Grand Rapids, Michigan, serves as a launching pad for students who, in any given year, participate in 40 faculty-led off-campus programs on six different continents. Discover more at

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