Why bad times call for good data

Tim Harford in the Financial Times: “Watching the Ever Given wedge itself across the Suez Canal, it would have taken a heart of stone not to laugh. But it was yet another unpleasant reminder that the unseen gears in our global economy can all too easily grind or stick.

From the shutdown of Texas’s plastic polymer manufacturing to a threat, to vaccine production from a shortage of giant plastic bags, we keep finding out the hard way that modern life relies on weak links in surprising places.

So where else is infrastructure fragile and taken for granted? I worry about statistical infrastructure — the standards and systems we rely on to collect, store and analyse our data.

Statistical infrastructure sounds less important than a bridge or a power line, but it can mean the difference between life and death for millions. Consider Recovery (Randomised Evaluations of Covid-19 Therapy). Set up in a matter of days by two Oxford academics, Martin Landray and Peter Horby, over the past year Recovery has enlisted hospitals across the UK to run randomised trials of treatments such as the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine and the cheap steroid dexamethasone.

With minimal expense and paperwork, it turned the guesses of physicians into simple but rigorous clinical trials. The project quickly found that dexamethasone was highly effective as a treatment for severe Covid-19, thereby saving a million lives.

Recovery relied on data accumulated as hospitals treated patients and updated their records. It wasn’t always easy to reconcile the different sources — some patients were dead according to one database and alive on another. But such data problems are solvable and were solved. A modest amount of forethought about collecting the right data in the right way has produced enormous benefits….

But it isn’t just poor countries that have suffered. In the US, data about Covid-19 testing was collected haphazardly by states. This left the federal government flying blind, unable to see where and how quickly the virus was spreading. Eventually volunteers, led by the journalists Robinson Meyer and Alexis Madrigal of the Covid Tracking Project, put together a serviceable data dashboard. “We have come to see the government’s initial failure here as the fault on which the entire catastrophe pivots,” wrote Meyer and Madrigal in The Atlantic. They are right.

What is more striking is that the weakness was there in plain sight. Madrigal recently told me that the government’s plan for dealing with a pandemic assumed that good data would be available — but did not build the systems to create them. It is hard to imagine a starker example of taking good statistical infrastructure for granted….(More)”.