We’re still in a pandemic, and Beth Blauer still talks to Lauren Gardner nearly every day.
Gardner, a professor at Johns Hopkins’ Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE), and Blauer, the civic data leader who is the university’s associate vice provost for public sector innovation, are collaborating with a team that continues to run and grow Johns Hopkins’ much-viewed COVID-19 map, nearly two years since it was launched with the onset of COVID-19.
“The mission has always been to make sure that there was a trusted source, and we want to make sure that continues,” Blauer said. “We continue to do that with no evidence of stoppage.”
It means data on the spread of COVID-19 and vaccinations is still coming in every day. It also means the Baltimore-based team behind one of the top global resources to emerge in the pandemic is still working to gather, analyze, visualize and contextualize all of the data.
As the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center (CRC) continues to update the COVID-19 map, its efforts have evolved with the pandemic.
A global map initially built by Gardner and grad student Ensheng Dong of JHU’s CSSE debuted in January 2020. In March and April, as COVID-19 spread across Europe and the United States, the university created the Coronavirus Resource Center to house the map, and expand what it offered, including public health expertise and visualizations. International media attention followed. With the pandemic raging, it was receiving over one billion interactions a day by April 2021. In January 2021, it passed one billion page views.
With info on cases, testing, hospitalizations and later vaccines, the map continues to be updated with the latest info from local sources. The Coronavirus Resource Center team includes members from JHU’s Centers for Civic Impact, the Bloomberg School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins Medicine and Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.
"You shouldn't divest in this infrastructure. This is how you should be driving decision making in your government across all of the persistent systemic challenges that you face as a leader."
The team has had a few faces change over the last nearly two years, but it continues to work “around the clock,” Blauer said.
“The governance is intact,” Blauer said. “We meet weekly to discuss the challenges that are happening within the data.We meet weekly with subject matter experts across the public health field — vaccinologists, epidemiologists, a team from the medical school — all making sure that not only are we collecting the data, but that we’re using the right lenses as we continue to broadcast messages around COVID.”
As the map approaches the two-year mark, the team is considering the lessons the map offers at the intersection of public data, public health and public policy, and how they can be applied going forward. It is capturing those and digging into issues with experts through the recently launched Pandemic Data Initiative.
“We started thinking about the archival relevance of the data and how the data will be this essential research tool … but there are just so many significant challenges with the data that we have been navigating throughout the entire pandemic,” Blauer said. “We wanted to be able to start talking about those issues now and having an ongoing dialogue.”
Among the challenges that have come to light: Some state governments stopped releasing data regularly every day. Reported over the summer, the slowdown came at a time when the Delta variant of COVID-19 was causing a surge. The CRC created a dashboard detailing where this was happening, too. When it comes to releasing data, Blauer thinks it would be a mistake for governments to consider the pandemic a “special circumstance.” After all, data isn’t only available from governments for a pandemic. There’s room to use data when confronting challenges like hunger and climate change, as well.
“You shouldn’t divest in this infrastructure. This is how you should be driving decision making in your government across all of the persistent systemic challenges that you face as a leader,” she said. “If you’re trying to decommission your data efforts, it’s a real sign that you’re not using data and evidence to contextualize decision making in a way that engages the public in a most necessary of capacities.”
At a time when there was a reckoning over racial justice in the country, Blauer said that an absence of standardized demographic data being released by governments was a sign of systemic racism that exists within public health, especially as COVID-19, especially as Black and brown communities suffered disproportionately from COVID-19.
“It feels such like an element of the design of the system, given just how much disarray there is and the fact that we just cannot still get any consistent information across demographic categories,” Blauer said. Recently, the CRC team released data showing the disproportionate impact on American Indian and Alaska Native tribes, as well.
The political context can’t be ignored, either. The pandemic became subject to the red-blue divide that is drawn across so much of society. In that context, the map emerged as a “steady hand in a storm,” Blauer said. When it came to getting good info out, local government leaders emerged as “unsung heroes,” as they bucked mandates issued by governors.
It could also bring lasting change. Blauer hopes it also leads to more data being released and used by governments. Governments were using data to guide decision making. After all governments used data to make public policy decisions to keep people safe, and were transparent about how they were using evidence to do so in a way that we typically don’t see. In the meantime, citizens got used to having information readily available, and seeing leaders use it.
“We’re probably going to see this urge for more unbiased data to help guide some of these decisions,” Blauer said. “In the same way we looked in the past to GPS and weather, now people are realizing public health information is really critical and should be guiding some of our decisions.”
Even if there’s a time when the team members don’t speak every day, the data will live on for researchers and others to learn from.-30-