Over the past months of pandemic coverage, readers have told me they want three things: positive stories about heroic medical staff and those making a difference; answers to questions such as: why are some provinces hit harder than others, how to stay safe and how will we pay for the programs keeping the economy afloat; and finally more data, data, data.
The first two requests are classic journalism: storytelling about great Canadians, and journalists questioning elected and public-health officials, asking for more data and information about who is affected by this pandemic and where, including which nursing homes and workplaces. Just as the epidemiologists need data for modelling, so, too, do Canadians want to know where danger lurks.
Reporters are trying to find out answers for you and this depends on the release of data, which many areas are reluctant to share. In a recent column, André Picard said it remains unclear why testing targets are falling short. “Is it lack of supplies such as swabs and reagents? Lack of laboratory capacity? Bureaucratic disorganization? The lack of transparency is appalling, the data gaps worse.”
More than a month ago, Eric Andrew-Gee and Tavia Grant wrote that, according to researchers, politicians and scientists, gaps in key health and economic data are hindering Canada’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving Canadians in the dark about who is being infected or struggling with the devastated economy.
“These blind spots could blunt the federal economic rescue effort, hide inequities in deaths from the disease and slow our emergence from self-isolation in the months ahead. Experts are urging provincial and federal leaders to open up more streams of data immediately, as doing so might save lives and livelihoods.”
Earlier this week, Toronto released a map showing the number of COVID-19 cases by neighbourhood, helping people see where the hotspots are. But this information sharing is rare and often inconsistent across provinces, which makes it difficult to compare.
As we move through this pandemic, you need more data to help you navigate the world. One of the most popular features on The Globe and Mail website is this dashboard, which provides maps and statistics on COVID-19 worldwide as well as broken down by province, updated three times a day.
Dozens of you have asked for more details on this dashboard and The Globe has been working to add as much information as possible. One reader even noted a typo deep in the small type and said he checked it several times a day.
This is what data journalism does. It provides exclusive reporting, as journalists work with researchers and scientists to give you the facts and information you need, presented in a visual way using charts, maps and graphics. Twenty years ago, or even 10, you didn’t see as much data journalism, but its value in showing what is happening, and where, is huge, in terms of environmental issues such as flooding or medical issues such as the pandemic.
Last weekend, science writer Ivan Semeniuk worked with Simon Fraser University researchers to provide an in-depth look at what the easing of restrictions would mean in provinces across the country and in several key U.S. states. “How much more contact will be too much?” Mr. Semeniuk asked in looking at how reducing physical-distancing measures could affect case counts. His analysis found that in British Columbia neither a 20-per-cent nor a 40-per-cent increase would cause problems. At the other end of the spectrum, the latest data suggest that Quebec, as a whole, may not yet be below the threshold that would permit a relaxing of measures without driving case counts higher.
“Different populations are experiencing different COVID-19 epidemics, so the impacts of their reopening are not likely to be the same,” said Caroline Colijn, who holds the Canada 150 research chair in mathematics for evolution, infection and public health at Simon Fraser University in B.C. and who worked with The Globe to generate trajectories for the pandemic under different levels of physical distancing.
This type of journalism goes beyond news conferences and standard interviews. It is time consuming to produce, but gives you information you won’t find elsewhere in the media. And it is highly visual, making it easier to grasp, in this case thanks to graphic artist Murat Yukselir. In the coming weeks and months, you need much more of this.
Matt Frehner, who heads the visual team at The Globe, said “lack of good data isn’t just an academic complaint. It leads to confusion in the general population about what is safe, where the risks of outbreak are highest and who among us is most vulnerable.”
And these good data, well explained, are exactly what you have indicated you want to see.