Industry-Sponsored Research Week

Purdue, Microsoft create app to track COVID-19 impact on research projects

By David Schwartz
Published: June 30th, 2020

A detailed article on the COVID-19 Sponsored Program Impact Application created by Microsoft appears in the June issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. For complete subscription details, click here.

How many university offices of sponsored programs, facing a critical COVID-19 related challenge, could reach out to an industry partner and be provided with a solution in less than a week? Well, Purdue’s Sponsored Program Services (SPS) apparently can.

Microsoft has collaborated with SPS to create a tool that helps Purdue determine the disruption of research activities due to the COVID-19 crisis. Using this tool, Purdue researchers can input information about the pandemic’s impact on their specific sponsored programs, which can then be aggregated to show the overall financial impact on the university. The tool, called “COVID-19 Sponsored Program Impact Application,” employs a combination of the Microsoft Power BI business intelligence application with an interface developed through Microsoft Power Apps. At present, over 1,100 faculty members on campus are using the tool.

The university and Microsoft are long-time partners, notes Ken L. Sandel, senior director of Sponsored Program Services and senior intellectual property officer for Purdue. However, he adds, this was the first time he interfaced with the Microsoft Education group and Jason Morales, Microsoft’s business strategy leader. The collaboration, he explains, came through a partnership Microsoft had with Purdue’s Polytechnic Institute.

“They knew we had an issue and wanted to collect information from the faculty,” says Sandel. “We had modeled the [projected] impact as we adapted to the Governor’s stay-at-home order. We knew we’d be away from campus, and on the research side we have lost progress through various goals and deliverables because all faculty researchers had to substantially change the way they do work. We knew we could continue computational research, but experimental research would be impacted.”

Sandel and his team also knew that if federal agencies were going to come up with any stimulus monies or supplemental funding, the university needed a specific way to measure the impact of COVID on specific projects, agency by agency, and P.I. by P.I. “I put together a little prototype Excel sheet to bring in specific information about projects and employees,” he shares. “If I could get it to the faculty, they could fill it in, and with actual salary information we could use it to calculate [impact]. But once I got it back, how would I manage the sheer volume of data from all the researchers?”

Sandel’s first step was a phone call with Carrie Berger, PhD, associate dean for research in the Purdue Department of Technology, Leadership, and Innovation/Polytechnic Institute. “She told me she had a colleague who had been playing with the Power BI Microsoft tool,” he recalls. “She put together a prototype that would take my Excel, and overnight we had a Power BI prototype — but we still had questions. They had met some folks on the Microsoft AI team, and they contacted Jason Morales. Jason jumped all over it, saying ‘Let me put some people on it; we recognize this is a need and we’re all responding to the COVID-19 crisis.’ That was on Friday. We had a conference call with him on Saturday, and by Monday we had a Microsoft prototype.”

The speed with which the tool was created and the ease with which Sandel was able to implement it bordered on miraculous. “All I had to do was e-mail the link to faculty, have them fill it out, capture new information combined with what we were provided on salary data, and we could report on and slice and dice it any way we wanted — all because Microsoft and their team jumped in,” he reports.

For the rollout, Microsoft provided free licenses for a six-month period. “The last time we rolled out a tool we had 1,100 faulty that had to have a license as a trial for the tool, but they recognized the crisis upon us and pretty much enabled it and have been there to support and promote it,” says Sandel, adding that Microsoft also hired consultant Mazik Global as implementation partner to help with the rollout.

Researchers access the application through Microsoft Teams. Each P.I. sees a custom dashboard that shows their portfolio of sponsored programs. The aggregated data can then be used to assess the impact on each grant.

Posted under: University-Industry Engagement Week

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