Which Covid-19 Data Can You Trust?

Article by Satchit Balsari, Caroline Buckee and Tarun Khanna: “The Covid-19 pandemic has created a tidal wave of data. As countries and cities struggle to grab hold of the scope and scale of the problem, tech corporations and data aggregators have stepped up, filling the gap with dashboards scoring social distancing based on location data from mobile phone apps and cell towers, contact-tracing apps using geolocation services and Bluetooth, and modeling efforts to predict epidemic burden and hospital needs. In the face of uncertainty, these data can provide comfort — tangible facts in the face of many unknowns.

In a crisis situation like the one we are in, data can be an essential tool for crafting responses, allocating resources, measuring the effectiveness of interventions, such as social distancing, and telling us when we might reopen economies. However, incomplete or incorrect data can also muddy the waters, obscuring important nuances within communities, ignoring important factors such as socioeconomic realities, and creating false senses of panic or safety, not to mention other harms such as needlessly exposing private information. Right now, bad data could produce serious missteps with consequences for millions.

Unfortunately, many of these technological solutions — however well intended — do not provide the clear picture they purport to. In many cases, there is insufficient engagement with subject-matter experts, such as epidemiologists who specialize in modeling the spread of infectious diseases or front-line clinicians who can help prioritize needs. But because technology and telecom companies have greater access to mobile device data, enormous financial resources, and larger teams of data scientists, than academic researchers do, their data products are being rolled out at a higher volume than high quality studies.

Whether you’re a CEO, a consultant, a policymaker, or just someone who is trying to make sense of what’s going on, it’s essential to be able to sort the good data from the misleading — or even misguided.

Common Pitfalls

While you may not be qualified to evaluate the particulars of every dashboard, chart, and study you see, there are common red flags to let you know data might not be reliable. Here’s what to look out for:

Data products that are too broad, too specific, or lack context. Over-aggregated data — such as national metrics of physical distancing that some of our largest data aggregators in the world are putting out — obscure important local and regional variation, are not actionable, and mean little if used for inter-nation comparisons given the massive social, demographic, and economic disparities in the world….(More)”.