Since the Coronavirus Pandemic dominated headlines and our lives in early 2020, I have been struck by the relative ‘data heaviness’ of this crisis relative to anything else I have experienced in my life. For those following the pandemic even at an arm’s length, metrics tracking has become almost a daily activity. We are following what ‘phase of reopening’ we’re in, we’re concerned about ‘hospital capacity’ or our ‘positivity rate’.
I’m someone who deals with data on a daily basis because it’s my job, but this pandemic has turned politicians into data translators and everyday people into avid data consumers. You could see early on that ‘numbers’ and ‘metrics’ were going to play a role in how we tracked the spread of the virus.
Early on, we focused on things like ‘number of cases’ or ‘number of deaths’ happening internationally. This information was presented mostly in dashboards showing cumulative totals and current status. This is where I thought that Narrative Science could play a part in helping people understand this data while also showcasing our technology. We created applications in Lexio, our data storytelling product, that tracked these metrics over time for the United States and the entire world. These metrics continue to be relevant, so these applications live on.
The challenge we saw is exactly the challenge we see in our day-to-day as a Data Storytelling company. We are inundated with data (in this case, finding a chart about something COVID-related is very easy). However, not everyone who is presented with this information feels comfortable acting on it. The great data scientists and developers who put these dashboards together have skills that the vast majority of us don’t have. So the challenge becomes:
- How do you get people to see how these numbers impact their lives?
- How do you get them to feel comfortable with those numbers?
- How do you get people to make good decisions with these numbers?
This is why we created Lexio, so we thought this was a great place to feed the data into Lexio and create interactive and easy-to-understand stories about it.
As we moved throughout the spring, states in America began to try to slow the spread of the virus through implementing different mitigation strategies. Here in Illinois (and specifically Chicago), leaders explained how metrics would be the determining factor in what specific mitigation measures would be enacted. What we saw was something I had never experienced before. Governors and Mayors were becoming daily data storytellers. Our leaders were having daily press conferences dominated by charts and powerpoints.
The metrics we looked at early on were not sufficient. So we started to hear about numbers of tests performed, positivity rates, hospitalizations, hospital resource usage and others. We updated our applications to bring in some of this information.
I have been impressed with the accessibility of the data here in Chicago. The COVID Dashboard is a quick place to look at the trend in the positivity rate, which has become the main metric to determine the prevalence of the virus locally. Illinois ‘Restore Illinois’ site shows the reopening status in regions of the state based on these metrics. Many states and localities have sites like this that provide similar information. The metrics tracked in these portals have remained relevant because surges in the virus have caused localities to re-apply mitigation strategies as numbers go up and then loosen them as the numbers go down and so on.
We kind of maintained a status quo with our suite of metrics for the summer and into fall. Cities and states would use these metrics to loosen or tighten restrictions.
The approval of two vaccines in late 2020 led me to the idea that COVID-19 as a ‘data heavy crisis’ was not going anywhere. I believe if that we used data to dictate when things would shut down and to determine the severity of virus spread, we will use data to dictate our progress toward our finish line (as many experts are talking about, a sufficient number of people being vaccinated to reach a level of herd immunity is where we want to be).
With that in mind, I went hunting for good sources that tracked vaccine doses administered over time. As fate would have it, Chicago added this exact information to its open data portal. We quickly created a story in Lexio that will now track this information as we move along in 2021. I was excited to get it up and running early because while right now, there isn’t much data to look at and the numbers are maybe lower than we would like, this is one that as we progress through the year, the numbers going ‘up’ will actually be a good thing, as opposed to the metrics we started tracking at the beginning of the pandemic. And then theoretically, as these numbers get higher and higher, the original ones will go ‘lower and lower’ and we can follow these metrics to the finish line.
Not only have our understanding of metrics progressed since last March, but Lexio has grown tremendously as a product since then and we’re able to leverage many of Lexio’s new and exciting features to make this data even more digestible. For example, I’ve now set my personal ‘Pinned Metrics’ to be all COVID-focused so I have a single view of all the datapoints I care about.
Or Lexio can give me ‘notable insights’ as the values change daily:
Similar to last spring with virus spread metrics, as the vaccination effort intensifies and systems of record become more reliable, new sources of data will emerge. We are always on the lookout for new ways to help people make sense of data.
Explore in Lexio: