Student Spotlight: Oren Tirschwell ’25

Oren Tirschwell ’25 is a first-year student from Westchester, N.Y. After the college announced they would stop sending out daily Covid updates, Tirschwell took it upon himself to construct a replacement tool, which he made available to interested students on Feb. 20.

Student Spotlight: Oren Tirschwell ’25

Before the spring semester began, the college announced that it would no longer be sending out the community notification emails for positive Covid test results that it had been sending throughout the pandemic. For Oren Tirschwell ’25, this posed a major concern: would students still realize when there was Covid on campus if they were suddenly not receiving these emails anymore?

Tirschwell decided to take matters into his own hands, using the data from the college’s Covid-19 dashboard to create a fully automated email notification system that provides daily updates on the number of Covid tests that had been performed the previous day, and how many students, staff, and faculty had tested positive. On Feb. 20, Tirschwell rolled out a subscription process for the system, circulating a sign-up form for interested students. As of Feb. 27, the service had 156 subscribers.

The Student sat down with Tirschwell to hear more about the process it took to create this service, and his motivation for doing so. Though the college just announced on March 1 that it will start providing daily case updates in the Daily Mammoth on March 2, Tirschwell says it doesn’t necessarily mark the end to his work in improving the accessibility of Covid case numbers for the Amherst community.

Q: What was your motivation for creating this daily Covid reporting service?

A: At the beginning of this semester, Amherst announced that they wouldn't be sending out the daily Covid update emails anymore. I was sort of immediately concerned that it might lead to a false sense of security among students about the fact that we're all used to seeing these daily numbers from Amherst — if we're not seeing them anymore, is there just an underlying assumption that no emails means no Covid on campus? As the first two weeks wore on, I started developing some very basic web-scraping capability around the dashboard, so that I could just personally be tracking the numbers. I saw cases — not a ton, because that second week that we were back in person was actually not bad — but I would mention the numbers to friends, you know, “Did you hear that there were six, seven, eight cases yesterday?” And they were always surprised. I had a lot of people told me, “Oh, I thought that there was no Covid on campus,” which was sort of validation of what I had assumed, that people would think that no emails means no cases. [When] things started getting worse over the last week and a half, and cases were going up pretty dramatically, people still didn't know what was going on. The first time that I think a lot of students really understood that we had Covid on campus was when we got that email — I think it was two Thursdays ago — from the school [giving a] heads up that cases are getting higher. At that point, I was thinking to myself, “Okay, well, they're not saying anything about reimplementing this daily email, so I should come up with some workaround, so that students who want to have access to that information.”

I would [also] mention [that] Amherst’s Covid dashboard is confusing, a little bit inconsistent, and not particularly helpful. Amherst has a total number of active and cumulative cases, but there's just no way for you to go onto that dashboard and get an at-a-glance look at the trajectory that we're going in. At Williams, Swarthmore, Bowdoin, Pomona, Yale, Harvard, and Princeton, and I'm sure the list goes on — they all have either daily or weekly summary metrics. And so I see the next component of this for me as redesigning [the] Amherst dashboard and making a new one, which I’ll also make available to students. And I'm hoping to have some time in the next couple of weeks to do that.

Q: What was the process for creating this service?

A: I needed a way to snapshot that cumulative number each day, and then eventually for the dashboard [to] get seven-day averages and stuff like that. But the first piece I need is [the ability] to compare yesterday's data to the day before. I'm using a programming language called Google Apps Script to do this programming work, [which]  is a language built directly into the Google suite that's based in JavaScript. It's a language I've used a bunch, and the main advantage that I see to it is its ability to connect different Google services together. By using this programming language, I can natively, within my Google account, have this spreadsheet that records all the data, and then have the emails getting sent based off of that spreadsheet. So that was sort of the first iteration — once I had it up and running, I had 10 or 15 friends who I just hard coded into the list. And then cases were getting worse, and so I thought to myself, ‘Okay, well, now I want to be able to release this more broadly to this school, and it's not sustainable for me to have to manually enter people's email addresses into the list, if I'm looking at potentially hundreds of subscribers.’ So that's when I wanted to build out a real subscribe-unsubscribe system, which I did using a Google Form — it's really easy for students to sign up — all they have to do is click a button on the Google Form.  Then it's really easy for me to get that most updated list of students, which right now is at 156 subscribers,and [to] send that email every day.

Q: How have you tried to get the messaging out about this service?

A: I think this is the hardest thing, because there aren’t really any group chats that everyone's gonna read, and it’s hard to find a way to get word out to everyone. I did a two-day trial run, where I had sent out a message to the orchestra group chat and to my residence hall group chat, just to get a sense of [the] interest. And I saw about 20 percent of people that I reached out to sign up, which seemed like a good sign to me. So at that point, I sent it to AmherstBussin two times. That’s basically where I got the rest of those subscribers, so that brought me from 35 to now 155. I have shared that I made this tool with the administration, including with President [Biddy] Martin and Dean of Students Liz Agosto. I’m thinking about other ways to promote it, including the Amherst Slack channel, and then potentially thinking about posters or something like that where I could put up a QR code to make it really easy for students to scan and subscribe. My estimate is that the demand for the tool would probably be around 20 percent of the student body, so I think if I actually get it in front of everyone's eyes, which is highly unlikely,  I would probably be looking at the 300 to 500 range for subscribers, based on some back-of-the-envelope math, and so that's what I would love to get to.

Q: What was the administration’s response to hearing about your project?

A: I haven’t gotten a response from either [Martin or Agosto] about the tool. And I’ve sent it in — not on its own in emails to them, in emails containing some other information that I wanted to share, but I haven’t gotten a direct response to it. And I sent it to Dean Agosto twice and to President Martin one time, but I haven’t gotten a direct response from them about it. I would guess that it is something that they decided no longer to do, that it’s not something that the school would necessarily help me in getting the word out about. I may follow up with them at some point in the near future and see if they would be willing to mention it in an email.

Q: Why did you take it upon yourself to address this problem, instead of, say, putting pressure on the administration to bring back the notification emails?

A: The administration chose to stop sending these emails, and it seemed unlikely that there was a world in which they were going to start it up again. The dashboard they have [has] been there since the beginning — I remember looking at it last fall or two falls ago, and it looked very similar. So there was just a part of me that felt like it seemed  like a futile thing to ask about, and probably their mind is made up. One component too was my sense was that the emails they sent out previously were manual  because they did [once] senta correction in the fall, which suggests that they weren't programmatically pulling the data. What I made is fully automatic, so when the data is flowing into the dashboard correctly, I don't have to do anything. We have so many cases now that sending out those emails [manually] just takes more time, and they [the administration] may be understaffed in a way that doesn't allow them to do that. I guess I just thought that the odds were low that it was going to get reimplemented, and once I started playing around with it a little bit, I knew that I had the ability to make it myself. And it didn't take too long — probably four or five hours. So I figured, why not?

Q: The administration just announced on March 1 that they will be providing daily case updates again in the Daily Mammoth going forward. How does this impact your plans?

A: I was very pleased to see that the administration will be resuming daily case updates. This is an important piece of information for students to have access to as we try to understand the current severity of the Covid outbreak on campus, as well as potential future outbreaks. Data directly from the administration will also be more timely, and potentially more accurate, than what I was providing. That being said, I expect the updates will, as before, not include the number of tests conducted. I feel this is an important piece of information for students to have access to — on a non-test day, if there were 10 positives, was that out of 25 tests? Fifty tests? Two-hundred? Depending on the format of the updates, I will be thinking about whether there is still supplemental information my automated updates might be able to provide.

Lastly, this does not resolve my concerns with the dashboard. As a result, I will not be pivoting my focus to (likely over Spring Break) designing and implementing a more practical and applicable dashboard available for the Amherst community to interact with.

Q: Do you have a long-standing interest in working on these kinds of projects?

A: So, I took a gap year last year, and I'm a first-year now. Last year, I did a lot of data science-based internships, and this type of stuff where I was helping with the ability for people to access and understand data. That always made me feel the most useful, and like I was helping people, which I always really liked. One example — I spent some time volunteering for a nonprofit. For five months, I volunteered for them, and when I started, they really didn’t have any reporting framework, or any easy way for people to access something like how many donations the organization had. They'd been around for about a year, they were a startup, but no full-time employees. They were all just volunteers working nights and weekends. So my first real big job for them was like, “Okay, well, we have all this data about our donations, we’ve had X number of donations, but it’s not easy to tell how many donations there actually were, it's not easy for the CEO to go somewhere and find that — they had to ask someone from the tech team, the engineering team to access that.” The data existed in five different buckets that I had to combine and then put into some kind of visual, really digestible source for the CEO and anyone else at the company to access. I've always really enjoyed that … a place where I can come in and help people and give people access to something that they would find useful, but that they don't actively have access to.

Q: Is this also something you're potentially interested in pursuing a career doing?

A: For sure. In the gap year, I did three different major internships and a bunch of smaller things along the way, but one of the really cool things that I liked a lot was jumping in and out of these companies. I was only working for them for three, four, or maybe five months, so it was almost like consulting in a certain sense. I was going in targeting certain problems, helping them improve processes, and then I would move on to my next internship. And I thought that that was really, really cool. Data science is something that I'm interested in pursuing, particularly in the nonprofit, government or education sectors. But this idea of consulting and being problem solving-oriented is something that I really like. Math was always my favorite subject previously, and I think it carries over that problem solving aspect to data analysis and computer science.