ASU geographers, urban planners bridge distance gap, build community

The School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning faculty, staff and students use skills and creativity to support one another amid COVID-19

March 27, 2020

On a recent Friday morning, nearly 30 Arizona State University School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning faculty, staff and students gathered for virtual coffee. 

General updates were given. People shared how they were feeling and what they were working on. Jokes were told and poems were read. The group even sang happy birthday to a fellow staff member.  The School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning faculty, staff and students gather for virtual coffee. Download Full Image

In the face of the unexpected coronavirus pandemic that has closed businesses around the world, moved ASU classes online and sent ASU staff home, smiles still filled laptop screens and people felt united. 

“Coffee with the director is something we’ve done on and off when I’ve felt there were groups that needed more connection,” said Trisalyn Nelson, director of the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning. “I just felt that it was an important time for people to have access to leadership and ask questions. I miss our family when we are not together. It’s a good way to stay connected.” 

Leading the way for creative solutions 

As the entire university adapts to new routines and schedules working and learning from home, students, faculty and staff are working together to create new pathways for maintaining community and engaging virtually.

Kelly Shea, a master's degree in advanced study in geographic information systems (GIS) student, says in light of the transition to online courses, her fellow GIS students created their own Zoom video chat room that is open 24/7 to collaborate with each other, answer questions and even chat about their day. 

“Last night we were all struggling with an assignment and we hopped onto a Zoom call together to go over it,” Shea said. “I do miss the lab just because it was a quiet place to work outside of the house and I do miss the interaction with all of our classmates, but it’s been so nice, despite the circumstances, to be able to hop in there and collaborate if we still wanted to.”

Faculty, too, are utilizing technology to creatively maintain and increase their level of interaction with students inside and outside scheduled lectures.

“I’m encouraging students to keep open communications with me,” said Robin Martin, associate professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning. “I acknowledge there will be changes in their lives, kids at home, shifting work schedules — so keeping in contact and being available if they have a problem is important. I also want to keep their class going so they can have some sort of normalcy.”

Martin, who teaches geographic research methods, adapted her course to give students an opportunity to process their experience with COVID-19 and think critically about applying their human geographical knowledge to the pandemic from a spatial perspective. 

“I wanted to give students an opportunity to write about this whole scenario, to think about relationships between data and the virus,” Martin said. 

Jason Kelley, lecturer in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning who is currently teaching five courses that have now transitioned online, admits to having some hesitancy moving online at first, given the highly interactive nature of his courses, but both he and his students have been pleasantly surprised with the transition and the effectiveness of Zoom's capabilities.

“The positive feedback from my students has been a tremendous motivator for me personally,” Kelley said. “I was fearful that students would have a hard time with this transition, but they seem to have adapted quite well to the new format, and are still just as participatory and eager to learn as always. We have an incredible group of talented urban planning students in (our school), and their hard work and dedication continue to amaze me.” 

Students helping other students 

Support continues to come from all directions, and students are helping other students. 

Peter Crank, a geography PhD student who currently is working on his dissertation from home, is exploring ways to help provide data sets that may no longer be attainable because of current physical distancing to faculty and students.

“There are students with term projects that are doing measurement-based stuff that they can no longer go out and measure,” Crank said. “I am working with faculty to see if there may be opportunities for us (graduate students) to lend the data that we already collected to these students so they can still do these projects.”

Maddy Kelley, a geography PhD student and member of the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning's Graduate Student Committee (GSC), says the committee — made up of five graduate students — is working hard to strengthen the graduate community and be a resource for other students. 

“Our GSC President Mehak Sachdeva is doing an amazing job keeping communication channels open between students and faculty. Changes are happening fast,” Kelley said. “Her leadership and work of the entire committee is a critical part of the GSC efforts.” 

The student committee is planning a number of virtual events which include coffee breaks that connect students with faculty, workshop events, international student-focused events and research colloquiums. 

The School of Geographical Science and Urban Planning faculty and staff are also working hard to move all scheduled colloquiums and events online and have additional virtual opportunities for students to stay engaged, including professional development resources.  

Working together to assist with emergency response 

Support and service extends beyond the classroom. The School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning department together — faculty, staff and students — are helping local and community partners respond to data and mapping challenges presented by COVID-19. 

Master's of advanced study in GIS students Kelly Shea and Nerrissa Pinto are working alongside Melanie Gall, co-director for the Center for Emergency Management at Arizona State University, to leverage skills and help build situational awareness tools that can help emergency efforts. 

“From a GIS perspective if there is mapping that needs to be done, it’s a unique time to be in right now,” Shea said. “I kind of wanted to reach out and help if I could because this is kind of an unprecedented thing for all of us.”

Pinto agreed adding, “This is a time when we all need to just help each other.” 

Shea Lemar, GIS project manager in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning who teaches in the school’s master's of advanced study in GIS program, says the students' willingness and dedication to service during this time is commendable.

“They are trying to work from home, they are still in the midst of very intensive learning that just switched to online.They are already working on their own internships, as well starting major capstone processes,” Lemar said. “This is a time of stress in their lives, too, and then on top of all of it, they are still willing to find time to help others. I can’t imagine that’s easy considering how overwhelmed they already are. It’s really impressive.”

Patricia Solis, research professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning and executive director of ASU's Knowledge Exchange for Resilience, is leading a team of ASU students to map, validate and add any missing information about critical medical facilities across the globe. 

Solis is co-founder and director of YouthMappers, a student-led consortium that is on more than 200 campuses and in 59 countries around the world. YouthMappers create mapping materials that help aid organizations and allow them to work more efficiently in emergency and development zones. Solis encourages anyone who is interested in helping to get involved, as there is no prerequisite skill or a specific major. 

“It’s an amazing way for students to use their cartographic and data talents for a clear public need and doing so virtually without the requirement of physical fieldwork,” Solis said. “They can dedicate their skills and knowledge online and make a difference with a spatial perspective.

Additionally, the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning as a department has put out a call for any individual or organization that needs help to mobilize the department’s skills in GIS to help fight COVID-19. Students and faculty can map, analyze and create dashboards with data. 

“I think people have responded in amazing, creative and generous ways to support students and each other during COVID-19,” Nelson said. “We have put an incredible emphasis on culture and creating a community and I think it’s times like this when it both pays off that we built this, but also is an opportunity to make it even stronger.” 

David Rozul

Media Relations Officer, Media Relations and Strategic Communications


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Current pandemic is a 'black swan' for economic forecasters, ASU expert says

Pandemic's economic free fall is an unpredictable 'black swan,' ASU expert says.
March 27, 2020

While economic free fall is unprecedented, recovery could potentially be quick

Every year, Lee McPheters describes the pulse of the economy — which has shown a steady uptick over the past several years for Arizona. McPheters shares his analysis in his role as Research Professor of Economics in the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University and director of the school’s JPMorgan Chase Economic Outlook Center.

So how do economists, who scrutinize every blip in the statistics, account for a calamity like the COVID-19 pandemic, which has closed businesses and endangered entire sectors of the economy?

The picture is grim. An astounding 3 million jobless claims were filed nationwide over the past week — the highest one-week total in history, according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics released Thursday. In Arizona, more than 29,000 claims were filed for the week ending March 21, compared with about 3,800 the previous week.

McPheters answered some questions from ASU Now:

Question: Have you ever seen anything like this pandemic?

Answer: This is different even from something that would affect a whole state, like (Hurricane) Katrina, which took down the state of Louisiana, or an earthquake in southern California. We’re talking about a global catastrophe.

Have I seen anything like this? No. That’s despite the fact that the common flu has tended to have increasingly greater fatalities in recent years. We have built that into our common understanding of, “This is life in the 21st century and there’s flu, but life and the economy go on.”

Here, the higher fatality rate and the panic response of consumers has really changed everything. So in addition to the economic problems is the overlay of panic on a national scale and apparently on a global scale, in most countries.

Q: So how do economists account for something like this?

A: Economic forecasting models are based on historical relationships among economic variables like income and employment and observed human behavior relative to spending, saving and investing. Forecasting models assume that past relationships, trends and behavior will be continued into the future.

However, forecasters also add the phrase “ceteris paribus,” or “all things remain equal,” and most forecast reports emphasize that the forecast can be affected by what are called “exogenous shocks,” such as war, terrorist attacks, weather catastrophes and most recently, pandemics. These events are regarded as not expected and not part of the forecast.

After the severe recession of 2008, economists adopted the term “black swan,” referring to events that are rare, unpredictable and have wide impact. The financial crisis was a black swan event. 

One of the features of a black swan event is that typically, as you start working back through the history, all the analysis suggests we should have seen this coming. Just as California knows they’re going to get another earthquake and they need to build structures in anticipation of that, here, in hindsight, we should have had much better and wider investment in public health.

Q: So is it too soon to predict what will happen with the economy?

A: We don’t have very many indicators that have a high level of frequency. The stock market is a daily indicator and that’s why it has so much attention. As the disease has spread, it’s changing day by day and we’re focused on the stock market telling us how the economy is doing. But the stock market is disconnected from the real economy, which is jobs and output and production.

One indicator that economists focus on is initial claims for unemployment insurance. Most Americans are in the unemployment insurance system. Their employers pay into the system and when you’re laid off, you have the ability to file for a claim. Those claims are filed every week.

Across the country, we’ve seen a huge jump. In Arizona, we’ve been seeing about 3,000 claims a week, and now it’s up around 30,000. We saw it first in Nevada and Washington, states that were hit earlier than Arizona.

Arizona’s labor force is about 3.5 million people. So 1% is 35,000. So if 35,000 file for unemployment, the unemployment rate goes up by 1%. That might continue for several weeks.

Arizona has been running at about 4.5% unemployment and I expect that to double.

Q: What about other segments of the Arizona economy?

A: The big picture is to look at the drivers of the Arizona economy and one of the drivers is population growth. A big portion of our population growth is made up of people moving here from other states. Last year we were the second highest destination for people who were moving from one state to another. About 83,000 people moved here. Well, people aren’t moving right now. There has been pent-up demand for housing, but I think that with in-migration grinding to a complete halt, it will have an effect on construction.

What I think we’ll see possibly is smaller businesses failing, which means commercial space available in more of the strip malls and smaller square footage offices and retail spaces because it will be hard for them to start back up. That’s why there’s a tremendous emphasis on trying to stop small businesses from failing because they employ a large percentage of people working in this country.

Q: The new federal aid plan that’s expected to be approved provides for a $1,200 payment to many Americans. Will that help?

A: This has been done before. It was done in 2001 and in 2008 and economists writing in economic journals, which are not widely read, show that in both cases, only about 20% of that stimulus money was spent on consumer goods and services. About 50% was spent paying off bills. About 30% held onto the money because they thought things would get even worse than they were. So the effect of mailing people a thousand dollars may not be that a thousand dollars gets into the spending stream.

We can’t say if that will be the case now.

Q: And what about all those empty store shelves?

A: You’re getting into the world of psychology there. People feel they need to do something to try to control circumstances and they believe they can do this by buying toilet paper. There is no reason to believe there is a shortage, from my understanding. The problem is in the stocking and, to some extent, the distribution. There’s no reason to think there will be physical damage to production.

Panic buying in and of itself is somewhat of a black swan. It was totally unexpected by grocery stores and retail outlets but I guess in hindsight, they should have thought that like in a hurricane, people will empty the shelves.

Q: What could recovery look like?

A: If we see that, during that second and third quarter, the economy loses jobs, once the turnaround comes, there will probably be a rapid rehiring of all the people laid off. It’s what economists call a V-shaped recession, a sharp dropping down and a strong comeback.

For the 2008 recession, it took Arizona about seven to eight years to come back. Here, I would expect that we will see a comeback probably in the early part of 2021, based on history and what we saw in previous sharp downturns. I looked at some numbers for the 1918 flu, and when the recovery got going, it was only a couple of years to get back to the prior level of employment.

But all bets are off. We just don’t know.

In the long run, we still won’t be able to incorporate this sort of thing. But the hope is, as we did with the financial crisis, after we get out of this, we’ll say, “What could we as a country do better to prepare for this sort of thing?”

Top image: Lee McPheters is Research Professor of Economics in the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University and director of the school’s JPMorgan Chase Economic Outlook Center. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News