COVID-19 Dashboards are Vital, yet Flawed, Sources of Public InformationRoundup
tags: public health, data, COVID-19, quantification
Jacqueline Wernimont is Distinguished Chair of Digital Humanities and Social Engagement at Dartmouth College. A digital media scholar who specializes in mathematic and computational media and their histories, Wernimont is the author of Numbered Lives: Life and Death in Quantum Media (MIT 2019).
The dashboard has become the iconic interface through which we understand the coronavirus pandemic. We have dashboards for reported coronavirus infections, hospitalizations, vaccinations, vaccine trials and genetic mapping. These dashboards present information at local, state, national and global levels and are created by government agencies, local and national news organizations, nonprofits, and in some cases, citizen and academic collaboratives. These visual displays are supposed to give us the information we need to act.
Given that the dashboard is one common way for millions of people to engage with and make decisions about the pandemic, we urgently need to understand how these interfaces structure our understanding of the virus — and how they fail to function in some key ways. In fact, covid-19 dashboards are remarkably ill-suited to the complexities of our pandemic reality.
That’s because historically the dashboard has been designed for a reader or viewer who has some power to act.
The digital dashboard draws on metaphorical relationships to vehicular, military and executive dashboards. The notion of a public health dashboard draws on our experiences with real-time instrument information in situations where we have the ability to impact operations. As visualizations of an unfolding pandemic, our familiarity with the idea of a dashboard and its operations obscures the significant delays and gaps in public health metric reporting and the limits of individual action.
Of course, the covid-19 dashboards are not the first example of visualizations of pandemic data. In London, in the 16th and 17th centuries, parish clerks monitored plague infections and deaths, and published their accounting in what was called a “plague bill.” They submitted them to the lord mayor of London and his alderman (regional officials) and then to the British crown and its advisers. These documents allowed the lord mayor and his team to determine who would be quarantined, to dispatch watchmen to the relevant house, and to plan closures or any other measures.
The crown used the information to gauge the toll of the plague on its largest city and the relative safety of conducting royal business within city limits. When the infection rates became too high, the entire court left town for Oxford and conducted business from there. As Kristin Heitman has noted, before the early 17th century, plague bills were closely guarded information designed to give the English government insight into the impact of a virulent disease on the population and the operations of the emerging nation. Public officials were empowered to act, and the information gave them insight they would not otherwise have had.
At the turn of the 17th century, however, the plague bills began being circulated in an entirely different context. Published initially as long, poster-size pages, the bills were hung in public settings. Later, clerks published smaller, single sheets or annual subscriptions that Londoners would carry with them as part of the daily news. While the bills were initially meant to guide those in power, their breakdown of infection and mortality data by locality enabled ordinary people to change their own habits accordingly — so individuals might skip a trip to a local tailor or visit to a friend based on the information. The wealthy might, and often did, choose to leave town much like the royal court. They were able to create or revise an actionable map of London based on the geography of pandemic deaths.
Today’s dashboard visualizations tend to operate at much larger scales, and are far more complex and frequently updated. But in some ways they are perhaps less useful to ordinary people than the plague bills of the distant past. For example, there are data lags of up to 10 days in digital dashboards that are difficult for users to wrap their heads around. Additionally, many dashboards provide global or national level data but not the local data that could actually inform an individual decision about where to go. Some local- and county-level data are available, but not always in the user-friendly format of the dashboard, and certainly not consistently across the country.
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