Anne Clauss Works to Solve Today’s Problems with Tomorrow’s Tools at DDIL

Delaware Data Innovation Lab Anne Clauss

The digital world produces mountains of data that can help decision-makers predict trends and solve problems. Both skills are desperately needed as COVID-19 impacts the supply chain, the global economy and public health systems worldwide.

But data is more than numbers on a spreadsheet. It represents people, behaviors and actions. To Anne Clauss, data tells a story that analysts must bring “alive.” 

Clauss is the executive director of the Delaware Data Innovation Lab (DDIL), which launched on Dec. 1. Like characters in a sci-fi blockbuster, its 22 lab fellows employ data analytics, artificial intelligence and augmented reality to address COVID-19-related issues and share the information in an easily understood fashion.

Clauss, whose father was a student of history and geography, taught her the power of narrative stories and that a map is an illustration for history.

“We compile data in new ways, we’re cross-referencing data in new ways, and we’re visualizing data in new ways,” Clauss says. “That’s our niche.”

In the short time that DDIL has been in existence, it has become a dynamic force. Credit Clauss, a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Business School, and DDIL visionary Patrick Callahan, CEO of CompassRed, a Wilmington-based data analytics and artificial intelligence company.

An Eye on COVID-19

Clauss came aboard in October, a month after New Castle County awarded a $2 million grant to CompassRed to start the organization. 

The funds are part of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act). With their support, DDIL is creating the following:

  • A Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) dashboard, so public schools can compare current completion rates to prior years and ensure that low-income students can access funds.
  • A hospitality sentiment tracker to gauge the public’s views on travel and dining out to help the hospitality industry navigate change.
  • A data journal to track evictions during the pandemic and inform tenant advocacy organizations.
  • A city indicators dashboard to determine which Wilmington communities are the most affected by COVID.
  • An interactive wastewater dashboard to help the city stay ahead of viral trends.
  • A high-tech virtual meeting space, complete with augmented and virtual reality, where collaborators can share information.

The focus on COVID-19 is fitting, considering the pandemic fast-tracked DDIL’s development. When the novel coronavirus hit Delaware, Callahan had 150 summer internship applications for two positions. He had his pick since many companies had closed their programs during the pandemic. 

Callahan, a Delaware Prosperity Partnership board member, was eager to bring talent into the Wilmington area. He also was excited about starting an innovation lab that could harness the latest in artificial intelligence and virtual reality.

Both Callahan and Clauss admire the MIT Media Lab, which grew out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Architecture Machine Group in the School of Architecture. Founded in 1985, MIT Media Lab culls from various sectors — including design, science, art and technology — to analyze everything from physical and cognitive prostheses to sustainable cities.

Callahan had the talent and the idea. The CARES Act grant provided financing. Through mutual friends, Callahan met Clauss, who has an undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering and recently worked with a software company that helps communities re-open during the pandemic. 

DDIL also had a location: the renovated CSC Station. Originally designed by famed architect Frank Furness, it is next to the Joseph R. Biden Jr. Railroad Station.

Standing on Its Own

Although organized by CompassRed, DDIL is an independent nonprofit. “There’s nothing like it in the region,” Callahan maintains. 

DDIL’s goal is to better the community, not a bank account. However, corporations, academic institutions, and nonprofits can become partners. TeenSharp, ChristianaCare, Wilmington Alliance, Healthy Communities of Delaware, CompassRed, and the University of Delaware have already joined the program.

As a membership benefit, partners can present issues for DDIL to examine, and they can access the results.

“We’re not replacing anyone’s in-house innovation lab; we’re adding to it because we can do things they can’t in-house,” Clauss says. “Bring us your data, bring us your talent, bring us your problems, and let us chew on them.”

For such a high-tech endeavor, it’s appropriate that DDIL introduced itself during a virtual Meetup. More than 100 people logged in from as far away as California, Texas, and Maine to hear about the program and meet the lab fellows who are supervising the COVID-19 project areas.

Clauss introduced her team like a proud parent. To be sure, she is well-versed in teamwork. The youngest of 10 children, the accomplished athlete rowed crew at Princeton and has spent time assisting with NCAA athletic programs at Swarthmore College.

DDIL has a diverse team, which is the way Clauss likes it. Fellows include a math teacher from Texas with grant-writing skills, a sports analyst, a data scientist in the public health field, and a native of Vietnam who has experience in business intelligence and digital marketing.

“Most people here could have jobs anywhere,” Clauss noted during the Meetup. “Even after our three short weeks here, they say, ‘Man, I’m never leaving. This is one of the best places I’ve ever worked.’”

Delaware is the right state for an independent innovation lab, she adds. For a small state, there are a wealth of industries, from agriculture to technology. It is easy to access data at all levels of government.

“The power of Delaware is that so many people know each other,” she says. “They trust each other — you can feel it.”

DDIL is continuing to add fellows and partners. It also is contributing to the growth of data analytics, which is still in its infancy. 

“We believe that by fostering innovation with a more diverse purpose in the data world, we have an opportunity to affect the development of the whole industry,” Clauss says. “We believe everyone should understand the power of data, and that the power of data should be for everyone.”

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