By Matthew Kredell
Master of Public Policy practicum projects for the 2019-20 school year made a real-world difference across numerous fields. For Bob Biller Award winners, honorable mention recipients, and finalists, the areas of wildfire vulnerability, telehealth for Hepatitis C treatment, sustainability development goals and Chinese tariffs on U.S. exporters were key areas of focus.
Wildfire vulnerability in Los Angeles communities
Recent graduates Firdaus Landou, Konstantinos Papaefthymiou, Matthew Quan and Katherine Tucker made up the team that identified communities in Los Angeles that are socially vulnerable in the event of a wildfire. The project received the 2020 Bob Biller Award for Excellence in the Practicum.
By analyzing GIS data in the high-risk-fire areas and conducting interviews with local fire chiefs, the team identified 29 Los Angeles communities at particular high-risk with respect to planning, response or recovery following a wildfire.
Their ancillary report for the Homeland Security Advisory Council included community-level risk analyses and recommendations, such as improving community planning, analyzing and prioritizing risk at the census tract level, assessing plans to serve communities with high numbers of elderly or others with limited mobility, integrating disaster planning and enumerating second-language communities.
James G. Featherstone, executive director of the Homeland Security Advisory Council, said, “The ‘Wildfire Vulnerability in Los Angeles County’ project not only demonstrated the team’s mastery of their research and recommendations, but they also embraced GIS technology to provide geospatial, data-informed recommendations. The team’s work is beneficial both to HSAC and also to the greater Los Angeles region. Their findings and recommendations have the power to inform and influence many of our local policymakers and fire agencies.”
USC Price Prof. Dan Mazmanian, an award selection committee member, said the wildfire report stood out. “They had a way of presenting the societal concerns about fire threats and vegetation management to the professional community while also being more sensitive than the fire community historically has been to people less well-off in our communities,” Mazmanian said. “I believe this project will take on a life of its own with the agency. It can make an important impact, and it shows how the work of our students can help communities in a significant way.”
As public policy students, the team didn’t know much about wildfires but was well equipped to take a social justice perspective on an area that might not typically be looked at in that regard.
“From the beginning, we didn’t want to just do a project to get a grade,” Tucker said. “We wanted it to be meaningful. Thankfully, we were able to produce a product we feel can be useful to real people in the real world. Hopefully this will help some people moving forward, help HSAC and help some communities. It’s super rewarding to create something we think can have a tangible impact rather than just doing research for the sake of doing research.”
Telehealth for treatment of Hepatitis C
The Biller Award honorable mention recipient provided recommendations regarding the development of a telehealth pilot program for treatment of Hepatitis C Virus (HCV) in Louisiana.
The practicum team – Colin Caprara, Justin Chang, Juan C. Machado and Natalie Schroeder – used community factors to come up with an index that determined where populations are most vulnerable to infection. Their cost-benefit analysis showed that there are substantial savings from providing this style of treatment compared to averted health costs. The project will help inform a grant proposal for the Integrative Behavioral Health Research Institute, a client that is seeking federal funding to undertake telehealth regarding HCV treatment in Louisiana.
Machado expressed that members of his group chose the project because it had a more quantitative edge and they all enjoyed working with data. When COVID-19 began to spread, the students’ HCV project became even more relevant.
“We were doing research on how people can use telehealth and all of a sudden there was a mass experiment with people only having telehealth to get healthcare treatment,” said Machado, who also won an award for Graduate Student Government Senator of the Year. “This coronavirus pandemic only increased the salience of our research.”
The group utilized a multi-method approach that combined systematic literature review, demographic analysis, GIS mapping and semi-structured interview to develop an index of community-level risk of HCV infection and identify possible locations for placement of telehealth clinics.
Machado noted that an important part of their findings was realizing the huge discrepancy in access. One of the populations most affected by HVC in Louisiana is African-American baby boomers, and the team’s research showed that about 38% of that population doesn’t have internet access through computers or smart phones. This limits the reach of telemedicine to a particularly vulnerable group.
USC Price Prof. Juliet Musso, who supervised the Biller Award winner and honorable mention projects, said, “What I think distinguished these projects was that they used a combination of interviewing, statistical analysis and special mapping of data, showing that our MPP students have this facility to use a lot of difficult methods and sources of information to solve complex problems. When you have complicated problems like wildfire risk and social vulnerability or the risk and treatment of HCV infection, relying on one method doesn’t get to the answer. These multi-method analyses of very difficult problems are what we do best in the MPP program.”
Advancing sustainability development goals
One finalist group created a generalizable negotiation framework rooted in program processes that the United Nations can use to advance sustainability development goals (SDG) by 2030.
The team of Lena Bhise, Alexis Cruz, Yifan Jiang and Juliana Vidal produced such good work that the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Division of Public Administration and Development Management offered Bhise the opportunity to help implement the recommendations as an intern.
“They wanted to have someone on site to help create some guidelines or framework,” Bhise said. “We were so happy to hear that they really liked our project. We took this as far as we could in the time we had to really help the U.N. look at this problem a little differently.”
The students created a negotiation framework consisting of four phases: problem diagnosis and scoping, program design, program implementation and program postmortem. They recommended that the U.N. provide workshops to help stakeholders within each phase of the process.
Additionally, the group suggested that the U.N. create localized databases for each member country, advise local stakeholders on how to link their programs to specific SDGs and strengthen partnerships between U.N. entities within the U.N. system.
Bhise shared that most of the tools she and her fellow teammates suggested were ones they used in previous classwork during the MPP program at USC Price. “I was looking back at old notes, old class books and everything we’ve done in the past two years and finding tools we can use in this situation,” Bhise said. “It was fun and really made me feel that everything you learn comes full circle.”
Impacts of Chinese retaliatory tariffs
A second award finalist looked back at the U.S.-China Trade Tensions of 2018 to 2019, focusing on the effects of Chinese retaliatory tariffs on $185 billion work of American products exported to China.
The team of Carlee Knott, Upamanyu Lahiri, Yueren Shi and Luwei Zhang worked with the Government Accountability Office, International Affairs and Trade Mission.
Utilizing the synthetic control method, a quantitative econometric method learned in their previous classes, the team concluded that Chinese tariffs have had a negative impact on U.S. exports to China and that major sectors have faced significant losses of exports and employment.
“This project was a really great example of how our international students can bring their experience and understanding of international issues into their work at USC Price,” said USC Price Prof. Grace Bahng, who supervised the practicum.
Lahiri said that, while the team would have liked to make its presentation in person, doing it over Zoom due to the pandemic actually gave their work greater exposure.
“It turned out to be a blessing in disguise because we were able to present to a much larger group,” Lahiri said. “If we did it in person, it would have just been to the L.A. office. Instead, we got to do our client briefing in front of more than 20 members of the international trade team from the L.A., D.C. and Oakland offices. We were glad to know the project we were doing was so important to them.” Each team persevered through the disruption and stress from the coronavirus to complete their projects. “The teaching team was really proud of how all the students overcame challenges and rose to the occasion to produce the quality of work they did,” Bahng said. “To try to come together in the face of normal collaborative challenges and then do it in the midst of COVID was really impressive.”