What a President Biden could mean for COVID-19 data

Last weekend, President-Elect Biden and Vice President-Elect Harris unveiled a Transition Plan. Their website covers detailed steps that the new administration intends to take for addressing COVID-19, climate change, economic recovery, and more.

One item in the COVID-19 plan caught my attention immediately:

Create the Nationwide Pandemic Dashboard that Americans can check in real-time to help them gauge whether local transmission is actively occurring in their ZIP codes. This information is critical to helping all individuals, but especially older Americans and others at high risk, understand what level of precaution to take.

A nationwide pandemic dashboard? Standardizing information from all 50 states? Providing local data down to the ZIP code level? This is literally all I’ve wanted from federal COVID-19 data since February. If the Biden team provides a publish date for this dashboard, I will mark it on my calendar and eagerly count down the days.

But, as you might imagine from reading my Source Callouts, I have a lot of thoughts on what types of organization, design, and documentation can make COVID-19 dashboards either easy to use—or frustratingly complex. Many other COVID Tracking Project volunteers, who have similarly been wading through state dashboards, have similar expertise. A group of data entry veterans, designers, science communication specialists, and other Project volunteers put together a set of recommendations for the dashboard that President-Elect Biden’s administration might build.

You can read all the recommendations on the Project’s blog. Here are a few highlights:

  • Prioritize clarity, by putting the most important data points front and center.
  • Offer transparency, through accessible data definitions and methodologies as well as time series which allow users to see how metrics have changed over time.
  • Structure the dashboard with consistency, through the use of logical section headers, color schemes, and regular updates.
  • Provide absolute and per capita values for all major metrics.
  • Report different test types seperately, and provide both positives and totals to allow for accurate test positivity calculations.
  • Make the design inclusive, through providing access for different internet connection speeds, mobile use, and easily surfaced information (i.e. no hovering).
  • Provide annotations and disclaimers to help users understand caveats and complexities in the data.
  • Include data in the forms of chartssortable tables, and downloadable spreadsheets to allow for easy analysis.
  • Place sex, age, race/ethnicity, and other demographic data in context by comparing COVID-19 rates with the overall population.

There’s a pretty big caveat to my dashboard excitement, though. In order for President-Elect Biden’s administration to put together a Nationwide Pandemic Dashboard, his team must first be able to access the nationwide pandemic data. So far, as President Trump has yet to concede the election, current Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) leadership are not able to communicate with their successors. POLITICO’S Adam Cancryn described the situation in a November 10 story:

Biden’s HHS transition team is not yet allowed to have any contact with its agencies, including with officials at the center of the pandemic response like infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci and HHS testing czar Brett Giroir. It’s also barred from accessing nonpublic information or setting up government offices, limiting the new administration’s ability to get a full picture of the public health crisis that it’ll take responsibility for in just over two months.

The separate coronavirus-specific squad has been held up as well, over concerns about how to structure it ahead of the formal start of the transition process and how willing the Trump administration will be to cooperate.

The sooner top national politicians accept the election results, the sooner Biden’s COVID-19 team can get to work. That work includes data dashboards, ramping up testing, public health communication, and just about everything else we need to get the virus under control.

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