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By the Numbers: Communication Studies Professor Launches COVID Dashboard Study

The College of Arts, Media and Design and Communication Studies assistant professor Ryan Ellis and his colleagues were recently awarded grants from Ford and Sloan, and the National Science Foundation. The two grants will support their newly-launched research initiative, the COVID Data Builders project. Working alongside Amelia Acker from the University of Texas at Austin and Megan Finn from the University of Washington, the team plans to examine the rapid proliferation of online COVID-19 tracking dashboards. The 12-month study also includes collaborators: Stacey Wedlake from the University of Washington, and Bidisha Chaudhuri and Janaki Srinivasan from the International Institute of Information Technology, Bangalore.

A pandemic is a different kind of natural disaster. The wake of destruction left in its path is not as readily recognizable as downed streetlights and crumbling buildings. And, while the details may change, we know how to respond to a hurricane or flood. We know the steps and cadence. Local and state governments establish temporary shelters and rescue efforts. In some instances, the National Guard swoops in to stabilize critical structures such as bridges and dams. However, the stock responses are almost always inadequate. Unfortunately, even when we “know” the rules, marginalized groups are often underserved or abandoned. In the best situations, a grassroots web of independent volunteers rushes in to fill the gaps. They are the clothing-drive hosts, non-perishable food collectors, and bulletin-board posters who gather and distribute resources to their communities.

Ryan Ellis Headshot
Assistant Professor, Ryan Ellis

What are COVID dashboards?

In early 2020, everyone stumbled trying to learn the new moves. Government officials and the public alike got tangled up searching for answers. Information regarding the novel coronavirus was incomplete, scattered, and often conflicting. Just like their “real world” counterparts, the open-source community came together in an attempt to organize the chaos. Instead of fundraisers and food drives, their emergency response took the form of COVID-19 dashboards.

Spun up under immense pressure by a loose network of volunteers and paid staffers, these landing pages became information lifelines. Infection-rate tallies, easily legible infographics, and interactive maps streamlined a wave of data,  bringing much-needed order to the pandemic experience.  One of the most well-recognized examples of these efforts is The COVID Tracking Project, which wrapped up operations in early March 2021. Countless others serve specific populations, run by dedicated solo coders. Northeastern has been relying on its own Testing Dashboard since mid-August 2020.

Why study COVID dashboards?

From tracking classroom outbreaks in rural villages to the WHO’s global map, the speedy proliferation of statistics aggregators is unprecedented in the digital sphere. The focus of the COVID Data Builders project, which sets it apart from other more technology-centric studies, is the emphasis on people. The team wants to examine the unique mix of part-time and full-time volunteers, government employees, and private sector individuals that create and maintain these dashboards. Sampling from a range of organizations, they’ll uncover the motivating factors and workflows that made these data hubs function. Hopefully, the project will offer a blueprint for navigating future public health crises and interdisciplinary collaborations.

The researchers will also review the information COVID consoles provide. Ultimately, they are only snapshots of the pandemic used. They help clarify or obscure what is happening in the world. The COVID Racial Data Tracker highlights how the pandemic disproportionately affects Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other minority communities. Created by the Boston University Center for Anti-Racist Research in partnership with The COVID Tracking Project, the dashboard is an explicit effort to accurately represent reality. Again, pandemics are natural disasters that are hard to see; bar graphs and tables illustrate their impacts.

At its core, the COVID Data Builders project is about asking questions. Who were the decision-makers? What aspects of the pandemic were excluded? Why? How did they get people involved? The team is excited to discover the answers and for what lies ahead. Said Ellis, “We’re looking forward to learning more about the remarkable efforts of COVID data builders and getting deeper insights into how data infrastructure are made, challenged, and maintained.”