How Intellectual Curiosity (And Some Data Wrangling) is Helping Fight COVID

By David Heidt
I want to recognize some of the unsung heroes of the COVID pandemic right here in Texas.

You may be aware of national news stories that recently discussed the issues with COVID data in Texas. The coverage ultimately led to officials getting equipped with better data as they continue to review policy decisions and public recommendations. What you probably don’t know is that better data originated from a loosely connected legion of persistent and analytical private citizens with a common goal – drive better policy decisions through better data.

Fortunately, I work on a team that is driven by intellectual curiosity. That quality, curiosity, is what drives me to find ways to make complex data accessible and invent new ways to connect data for better insights. It’s also curiosity that led people to question anomalies in the reported data: wild swings in numbers, huge outliers. Enter our zealous private citizens and passionate data sleuths – they eventually started to collectively publish on social media their own “corrected” numbers with explanations of the issues with the current data reporting process. They raised these issues, with the goal of impacting official reporting, but were initially unsuccessful.

Eventually, the national media got wind of the story. Several weeks ago, prominent outlets started reaching out to the data sleuths on social media. Journalists asked the right questions and, most importantly, they listened to the answers. Local public officials in Texas also started showing signs of understanding the scale of the issues and the winds of change started to blow.

Two huge victories came in the past couple of weeks. Both state and local officials made the simplest of changes to their reporting with tremendous impact. Agencies had been reporting new cases and positivity rate based on the dates that tests were reported to them. Just switching that out to instead use the date on which the tests actually occurred cut Harris County’s New Cases by two thirds, moving that metric from Red to Orange in the Threat Level rating. Texas’ current positivity rate curve was also updated to show a cleaner trend line with a peak in July, rather than the previously reported peak in August.

None of this would have happened without our intellectually curious data sleuths. Private citizens who have everyday jobs, and who derived no benefit other than observing a problem no one was doing anything about and seeing that it was fixed. Which is why this story resonates so loudly for me. It’s an attitude my team at work strives to apply every day. And while desk jockeys like us will never feel the rush of saving someone from a fire like first responders, it was awesome to see someone like me, doing what we do in a way that positively impacted millions of Texans. To that, we say “Thanks, Data Sleuths!”

I will leave you with this challenge. Who are the data sleuths in your organization that are getting ignored? What emergencies are distracting you from missing fundamental issues? How do you find simple tweaks that turn your policies on their collective head? Keep Excel-ing!