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April 9, 2020

Data Transparency: Lessons from COVID-19

Alex Woodie

(gintas77/Shutterstock)

The rate of increase in COVID-19 infections is starting to level off in the hardest hit areas, which is great news for the world. We’re not out of danger yet, but experts are beginning to question how authorities handled the situation, including their use of data.

We’ve been inundated with numbers during the novel coronavirus epidemic, which has infected nearly 1.5 million people and killed more than 92,000 around the world, according to the Johns Hopkins CSSE map that has become a go-to source for data during the crises. Models, projections, and “flattening the curve” have become national obsessions as we seek clarity during a period of uncertainty.

Data has become a critical resource informing our collective survival strategy against the coronavirus. For example, when California Governor Gavin Newsom declared on March 18 that his model indicated that 56% of California’s population, or 25.5 million people, would be infected with COVID-19 over an eight-week period, it functioned as the lynchpin for his order that effectively shuttered most of the world’s fifth-largest economy. (Those numbers were based on a worst-case scenario without any precautions taken to stem the spread of the virus, the governor’s team later disclosed.)

As the lockdown enters the fourth week and actual infection rates in California come in below the doomsday projection, citizens are beginning to grow restless and wondering when they will be allowed to carry on with their lives. Has this been an overreaction? Did Newsom get the data wrong? Or is this what an idea outcome looks like?

Amid all the real suffering, the COVID-19 pandemic contains a lesson about data and how leaders can more effectively use data to achieve their aims. For Glen Rabie, the CEO of BI software provider Yellowfin, it all comes down to data transparency.

“I think there’s a really interesting management lesson to be learned from the way that all countries and political parties of all persuasions have addressed the events as we’ve seen them,” Rabie told Datanami in an interview on April 2. “We’re all kind of looking at data and thinking about data and questioning the veracity of the data and where it comes from.”

(Cryptographer/Shutterstock)

Rabie is not underplaying the threat that COVID-19 poses. He recognizes the risk to society of allowing the coronavirus to run rampant, and the difficulty of making painful decisions that impact people’s lives. But at the same time, it’s clear that he thinks some leaders have not been as forthcoming as they should be when it comes to sharing the data they’re using to make these tough decisions.

“The government is taking the patriarchal model of ‘I know what’s best for you, let me tell you what to do,’ without really providing us with the detail of the data and the models that they’re using to make their decisions,” he said. “We’re being very heavily impacted and essentially told to trust government. I think if you take this kind of thinking and apply that into an organization, you would find that there would be an awful lot of employees who are resistant to the change.”

That lack of data transparency and sharing of information from government has manifested in some very odd COVID-19 behavior, such as people hoarding toilet paper, he says. “People who don’t know how to bake are buying kilos and kilos of flour!” the Australian said. “They’re doing it because they’re uncertain. They didn’t know that the shops are not going to close. They were just told there was going to be a lockdown.”

The uncertainty in key COVID-19 metrics, such as new infections, hospitalizations, recoveries, and deaths, has led to a battle for resources, including hospital beds, respirators, and personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks and gloves. Armed with dire predictions that may or may not turn out to be true, states are fighting with each other and the US federal government over access to these resources.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has also called for local governments to be transparent in their communications with citizens. In a March 30 press release, it reiterated the need for “frequent transparent communications with the public, and strong community engagements so the public can maintain trust in the system to safely meet their essential needs and to control infection risk in health facilities,” the WHO stated.

(Antiv/Shutterstock)

Facts can be hard to verify in the midst of a crises, like the one we’re in, and mistakes inevitably will be made. Hard decisions have to made based on incomplete data, and political leaders need to have the leeway to make those tough calls in the middle of the crises.

But as better data is gathered and facts become clearer over time, it’s imperative that political leaders communicate these new facts with the public. That’s not happening at the moment, Rabie said.

“Nobody is telling us what the end game and the long game is, and as a result we’re all sitting at home wondering, what’s next?” he said. “How does that help business get back to normal? How does that help people to think about new ways of doing business while this may last for six months?”

In Australia, there are four levels of lockdown, and different states and municipalities are at different levels, according to Rabie. “Federally we’re at level 2. In our states we’re at level 3. But no one has communicated at one point and why we would go from one level to another,” he said. “What is the trigger? What are the numbers the government is looking at that say, if we hit that number, we’ll go to level 4, and what level 4 means for you is this and this and this. Not all that is being communicated.”

The same dynamic is playing out across businesses that have been forced to partially shutdown or furlough employee as a result of the lockdown. A CEO may release 25% of his workers, but what message does that send to the remaining 75%? If the CEO is data-driven, he will clearly communicate what data he’s using to make his determination, and that clarity will resonate with the remaining staff.

“Providing that transparency to the organization and trust – that’s what enables people to get on with their jobs rather than sitting there thinking, am I going to be next? What’s going to happen and when is it going to happen?” Rabie said. “It allows them to focus and get stuff done.”

Data transparency will be important as we enter the next phase of the COVID-19 crises. In the past few days, political leaders in New York and California have indicated that the peak of the curve is now within sight. If the numbers hold steady, it seems likely that we’ll have significantly fewer infections, hospitalizations, and deaths than the worst-case scenarios initially indicated.

Politicians have been quite wary about recognizing the looming apex in coronavirus infections, and insist that we must not let end the lockdown because the numbers could easily go back up.

“One data point is not a trend,” Gov. Newsom said this week. “I caution anybody to read too much into that one point of data. But nonetheless, it is encouraging and it just reinforces all of the work you are doing to practice physical distancing.”

While the rest of us maintain social distancing, Rabie thinks it’s an excellent opportunity for politicians to practice data transparency.

“Don’t repeat the mistakes of the past. Start to tell people what does this look like, how long will [it last], at what point will we loosen the restrictions, and at what point can we and will we travel again,” he said. “If I was to be a political leader that was data-driven that’s how I’d be talking to our people about it. I’d be thinking about reducing the uncertainty so that people can get on with it.”

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