One year of the CDD: My favorite posts

Issue #1 of the COVID-19 Data Dispatch was published on July 26, 2020. Today, we hit Issue #52.

During that time, we’ve explored data issues from testing to vaccinations to variants. We’ve moved from Substack to a new website, supported an internship, and logged over 150 data source recommendations for readers.

In reflecting on what I’ve learned running the publication this past year, I wanted to share a few of my favorite posts—those where I provided original analysis, introduced a new source, or had an impact on readers.

  • Hospital capacity dataset gets a makeover: This was our very first issue in July 2020. COVID-19 hospitalization data had switched from CDC responsibility to HHS responsibility; the switch garnered a lot of data challenges (and some political attention). This post explains what we knew so far about why the switch had occurred and what issues it was causing—and paved the way for many more posts on HHS hospitalization data.
  • Three different units for COVID-19 tests: In this September post, I explained a major challenge  I’d dealt with in my volunteer work for the COVID Tracking Project: every state counted its tests in a slightly different way. The post goes over tests counted in specimens, people, and encounters, with examples from different states and an explanation of why the issue matters.
  • School data with denominators: In October, I interviewed Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University who has led one of the major research efforts to track COVID-19 cases in U.S. schools. We discussed the challenges of compiling school data—many of which still persist now, nine months later. Oster has also become a bit of a controversial figure in the debates over school reopening, and I’m proud to have asked her some challenging questions at a time when her work was just starting to gain prominence in the COVID-19 world.
  • Your Thanksgiving could be a superspreading event: This post—which provides a data-driven explainer of COVID-19 superspreading events—was inspired by a reader’s question on how holiday celebrations might contribute to COVID-19 spikes. It was published on November 8, a time when many Americans were carefully considering holiday plans; I wanted to help people understand their risk and act accordingly.
  • A new metric for conceptualizing cases: Here, I described a metric first used by my friend (and fellow COVID Tracking Project volunteer) Nicki Camberg: one in X Americans has been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the past [insert timeframe here]. The metric was later picked up by the New York Times and other outlets, and I’ve consistently used it in updates throughout the year. The post includes a quote from Nicki, reflecting on how the metric can make COVID-19 cases more personally relatable.
  • Who should get the first vaccine doses?: This post (from late November) might be the one I’ve most often sent to other journalists, mostly because it includes a detailed description of the CDC’s Social Vulnerability Index—a source that provides social, economic, and environmental data by U.S. counties and ZIP codes, and one I frequently recommend to anyone reporting on demographics or equity. (At the time, I hoped that it would be used to determine vaccination priorities; this has been true for some parts of the country, but far from universal.)
  • COVID-19 data for your local hospital: This post discusses a new release of facility-level hospitalization data from the HHS. At the time, it was described as “probably the single most important data release that we’ve seen from the federal government.” I explained why it was so important and gave some examples of some stories that could be told with the data, including an interactive Tableau dashboard.
  • We’re not doing enough sequencing to detect B.1.1.7: This was one of intern Sarah Braner’s first posts, and it became the first post in our now-extensive Variants category. At the time (January 10), just 63 B.1.1.7 cases had been identified in the U.S., but Sarah explained why the true numbers were likely much higher and why that data gap should be cause for concern.
  • Access barriers lead to vaccination disparity in NYC: The CDD usually takes a national focus, but in this post, I zeroed in on my home city as a microcosm of the vaccination barriers faced across the country. At the time (February 7), Black New Yorkers made up 25% of the NYC population but just 12% of those vaccinated. I visualized the disparities, and discussed potential reasons and solutions.
  • Privacy-first from the start: The backstory behind your exposure notification app: This March 28 interview is one of my favorites from the past year. I spoke to Jenny Wanger, product manager and leader for exposure notification apps. After months of following these apps (and getting frustrated at the lack of available data), I was thrilled at the opportunity to talk to an expert in the space; this interview helped inspire my later feature for MIT Tech Review on the same topic.
  • Some personal news: In April, I left my full-time job in order to focus on freelancing and the COVID-19 Data Dispatch. This post announces the decision and explains my rationale; I appreciated the opportunity to reflect on my choice and talk about what might be next for me, and I think readers did as well.
  • In India’s COVID-19 catastrophe, figures are only part of the story: As COVID-19 cases surged in India, guest writer Payal Dhal explained why official figures fell short at capturing the scale of the tragedy. Comparisons to data quality, testing availability, and hospital capacity in the U.S. help to explain the issue.
  • COVID source shout-out: TUSHY: In the May 9 issue, I featured a bidet company promoting vaccinations with NSFW tactics: “Can We Eat Ass Yet?” “NO.” I will forever be grateful to TUSHY’s marketing team for responding to my press request on short notice and providing more backstory on the page.
  • The data behind the CDC’s new mask guidance: This post aimed to provide a service to readers confused by the CDC’s sudden shift in masking recommendations. I outlined the epidemiological evidence behind the agency’s assertion that fully vaccinated Americans could go maskless basically anywhere.
  • The US missed Biden’s July 4 goal: How did your community do?: To commemorate the July 4 holiday, I did a deep-dive into President Biden’s missed goal: 70% of adults vaccinated with at least one dose by that date. The story includes interactive maps and quotes from experts on where we go from here.

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