Content Discussion History

Standardizing COVID-19 Data to Support Policy Decisions

Just as the fast-moving COVID-19 pandemic has swept into each and every state, so too has the need for accurate information about its impact. State and local governments are making difficult decisions every day – closing businesses, converting schools to remote learning, commiting scarce funds to buying protective and medical gear at inflated prices. All of these decisions require good and timely information about the scope of the problem. Projects like the COVID Tracking Project are working to fill this need.

Obtaining accurate and timely data about the spread of the virus has become an unexpected challenge in the United States. While the federal government has traditionally been the most authoritative source for national public health data, this has proved not to be the case with the coronavirus pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the nation’s official source for public health surveillance data, has not kept its site updated with information available through state and local health departments. 

A number of online data tracking and visualization efforts have sprung up to help meet this new need. Johns Hopkins University’s COVID-19 dashboard is among those at the forefront of this effort, along with several other excellent projects. But all of these websites depend on access to  accurate data. Without a central data source in the US, many tracking and visualization sites are aggregating data from a collection of sources. 

Aggregating information from dozens of sources is challenging and time-consuming, so volunteer projects have stepped in to fill the gap. One major backbone of this effort has been the COVID Tracking Project. Started by two journalists from The Atlantic and a data scientist from Related Sciences, the COVID Tracking Project scrapes data directly from state public health websites so that its numbers are constantly current. Many news organizations are now able to draw data directly from this source and use the time they would have spent aggregating data to provide additional context, analysis, and insight.

The COVID Tracking Project’s work is also helping to establish best practices for how state public health agencies should provide data about COVID-19. Based largely on Oregon’s COVID-19 Updates report, the COVID Tracking Project’s Ideal Data Set describes the key measures states should report in order to be compatible with data from other states. 

Ideal Data Set – Demographic Information for Positive Cases – Modeled After Oregon

County/Location

Field

Description

Format

Example

location

Location (County/Zip)

Text

“Douglas” or “94025”

state

State

Text – State Abbreviation

“CA”

number_of_cases

Total number of cases

Number

1

Age Group

Field

Description

Format

Example

age_group

Age group

Text

“18 to 24”

number_of_cases

Total number of cases

Number

1

Hospitalized

Field

Description

Format

Example

hospitalized

Is the case hospitalized?

Text – Yes / No

“Yes”

number_of_cases

Total number of cases

Number

5

International Travel

Field

Description

Format

Example

international_travel

Did the individual travel internationally?

Text – Yes / No

“No”

number_of_cases

Total number of cases

Number

11

Deaths

Field

Description

Format

Example

deaths

Total number of deaths from a positive case

Number

5

In effect, the COVID Tracking Project has proposed a data standard for COVID-19 data. For information that will be aggregated across datasets, a data standard is a great way to make data from different sources work together – something that is especially important for public data (If you want to learn more about data standards, GovEx has a resource here).

To make good decisions we need good information. Making it easier to access and aggregate data gives decision-makers the information they need more quickly and accurately. If you’d like to help make that happen in your state, be sure to check your state’s COVID Tracking Project Data Quality Grade and ask your state public health department to provide any elements that are missing. 

Comments

add comment

Your comment will be revised by the site if needed.