The data about the data: On the public’s growing thirst for stats during COVID-19


RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — To keep up with the coronavirus pandemic, you almost have to become an amateur data scientist.

Percent positive rates, rolling averages and the daily breakdowns of key trends all have become critical parts of our vocabularies.

And now state and federal agencies have begun to quantify how the thirst for COVID-19 data has grown during recent months.

“I actually love everyone’s incredible interest in epidemiology now,” Dr. Elyse Powell, an epidemiologist with the state Department of Health and Human Services, told CBS 17 News.

According to figures provided by DHHS, its main website and its COVID-19 information page drew more page views in a month than the original DHHS website received during the 2019 calendar year. The agency said it logged 9.2 million views between May 16 and June 12, compared to just 8.7 million in all of last year.

And the driver of that traffic is the newly designed data dashboard, with nearly 3.3 million of those views. The site was redesigned last month and features charts, graphs and other ways to visualize several key coronavirus metrics — including the daily and cumulative counts of cases and deaths.

During that roughly monthlong timeframe, 64 percent of the traffic on the COVID-19 site went to the main dashboard and the links to its subpages.

“I’m thrilled that everyone is so invested in our data at this point and the level of attention on our numbers is rightfully incredibly high,” Powell said. “I think that folks come with a wide range of experience ingesting the data and the way to look at it, and I think our role — really, what we thought about a lot with the website is not just saying, ‘Here’s what the numbers are,’ but being really transparent with, ‘Here’s what our numbers are, here’s where our data comes from, here’s what our data can tell you, here’s what our data can’t tell you.”

The federal government operates an analytics website that tracks its most frequently visited pages in real time as well as over the past 7- and 30-day periods.

Three of the five most visited domains on all of its participating websites have to do with public health — either the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the National Institutes of Health.

But with so much data focused on the disease, is there a risk of becoming overwhelmed?

Josh James thinks so. He’s the CEO of Domo, Inc., a Utah-based software company that specializes in data visualization and business intelligence.

One of his creations, the Crisis Command Center and Governor’s App, pools real-time data from a variety of official sources and centered on a variety of aspects of the crisis — from hot spots and testing to bed capacity and transmission rates — and provides that to government officials and business leaders to inform their decisions during the transition into reopening.

He also operates a publicly available data tracking website that incorporates information from sources including the CDC and the World Health Organization and updates every 10 minutes.

“It’s kind of a mess, just data all over the place, right?” James told CBS 17. “And there’s some misinformation out there. That’s why kind of having the single source of the truth has become really important for governors and for CEOs trying to get their employees back to work. 

“Because if you think about it, it’s kind of like someone told you, ‘I want you to take off from this airport, there’s a lot of mountains and there’s a lot of clouds, but I’m not going to give you any instrument panel.’ What? That’s kind of what’s been taking place, that digital cockpit where everyone is trying to figure out how to get everyone back to work.”

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