Coding Empathy

CS-LSA undergrad Kirtana Choragudi runs MI Symptoms, a web-based application that helps people navigate the pandemic. What inspires her? A love for computer science and commitment to making the world a better place.
Kirtana Choragudi Enlarge

In the spring of 2020, Kirtana Choragudi was working on a double major in computer science from LSA and business administration from U-M’s Ross School of Business. Like the rest of the world, she was also navigating a new remote life: taking classes, working as an assistant course instructor, and socializing with friends virtually. When a professor asked her class if anyone wanted to help epidemiologists from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) and the U-M School of Public Health analyze COVID-19 data by building an app, Choragudi didn’t hesitate.

“It was a month into quarantine and I was going stir crazy,” Choragudi says with a laugh. “I’ve always been the type of person to never be at home, particularly during college. Even when I’m doing a lot of work, I love engaging with people and helping in any way I can. That’s what I feel my guiding mission has always been.

“When the pandemic started,” she continues, “I was actively searching for a way to help and use the talents I have. The ability to use my technical and organizational skills, and to work with an incredible team to build something helpful sounded like a really great opportunity. I might not have known very much those initial weeks, but I’ve learned a lot.”

The lessons she learned went into making MI Symptoms, a free web-based application that helps employers monitor their employees’ COVID-19 symptoms by asking them to answer a set of symptom-related questions and offering them tools to help them stay as safe as possible. The data from the questionnaire is also shared with epidemiologists who can use it to predict future COVID-19 outbreaks.

MI Symptoms launched on June 1, 2020, and currently has over 100,000 users. Users fill out surveys to their employers that disclose if they currently have COVID-19 symptoms or have recently been exposed to the virus. These surveys enable employers and organizations to check their employees, volunteers, and students for COVID-19 symptoms each day before they enter the workplace or school. By March, Choragudi expects to have over 3,000,000 survey submissions.

“We started out with about 30 students working on the project,” Choragudi explains. “From the beginning, I took a leadership role.”

Choragudi is the product owner of MI Symptoms, which means she leads the MI Symptom’s development, design, and testing teams. She’s responsible for making design-related decisions, ensuring the application works for all users, reviewing code and addressing issues related to the website’s functionality with her technical team, and planning tests while also managing administrative issues like security, privacy, and budget concerns. It also means she spends very long days of Zooming with stakeholders from the Michigan Labor Department and MDHHS, epidemiologists at the U-M School of Public Health, county public health officials, and employers across the state to make sure everyone is in agreement with and aware of any changes to the app.

And she’s doing all of this in addition to her classwork and extracurriculars. It’s demanding, but Choragudi isn’t fazed.

“It’s been a ton of work and I’ve definitely sacrificed much sleep and social time for the project, but it’s absolutely been worth it,” she says. “Over 500,000 people have died in the United States that didn’t necessarily have to. If I can help prevent more deaths, help public health officials make better decisions, make it easier for employers to know that their employees are fully aware of symptoms, or work with schools to make sure students don’t have symptoms when they go to class, then I feel like I’ve helped at my full capacity.”

Positive Impact Technology

Choragudi is now a fifth-year undergraduate in her final semester. When she first arrived at LSA, computer science was not on her radar. “I wanted a major that was extremely people-facing,” she says. “I initially planned to study political science, but I knew at LSA I had a chance to be indecisive for a while. I wanted to study everything.”

In the first semester of her first year, Choragudi took Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) 183, an LSA introductory computer science course for students outside of U-M’s College of Engineering. “I absolutely fell in love,” she said.

“Sometimes I feel like the liberal arts aren’t taken as seriously because they aren’t technical, but they’re so impactful,” she says. “I love both my LSA computer science major and my business major in Ross, but my favorite classes have honestly been the elective humanities and social sciences courses I’ve taken over the years.”

They’ve also informed her technical work.

“Classes about Islam or identity in digital spaces or the evolution of language or how communities of color are disproportionally affected by global crises have changed my views about the world,” she says. “On paper they might have nothing to do with my majors, but they’ve made me a much more well-rounded person, which makes me a stronger computer scientist. They’ve given me some of the empathy that drives me to work so hard to improve public health.”

Before MI Symptoms, Choragudi didn’t have public health experience. Now, in addition to preparing for life after graduation, Choragudi is leading a different project team with the same group of epidemiologists from MI Symptoms: a new private dashboard designed to help local public health officials make informed vaccine allocation decisions. “Public health often doesn’t have all of the data visualization tools and technical software that everyone assumes it does,” she explains. “Computer science is for anyone who wants to make a positive change through technology.”

Choragudi brings this love for computer science back to EECS 183, where she’s been an instructional aide for eight semesters. “I’m very busy. Someone with my other commitments might not teach this semester, but I adore EECS 183,” she says. “A student’s image of a computer scientist might not necessarily fit with their own self-image, so it’s really easy for students to just discount themselves before they even get started.

“I remember being a first-year and feeling timid and like I couldn’t do anything super technical,” Choragudi continues. “I feel like I have the ability to inspire young women and any students who feel like I did. I want to show them that they’re not only capable, but their other interests in and understanding of humanities or music or language might actually help them be a better computer scientist.”

Originally published by the College of LSA.