Rising to the challenge of reporting coronavirus statistics
As a government statistician working in public health, I have never worked on a publication that has ever garnered the size of audience and scale of scrutiny as the COVID-19 dashboard.
During the peak of the pandemic, in January 2021, the dashboard served around 76 million requests a day, transmitting over 4.5 terabytes of data. We now have around 100,000 users logging on for the latest data that goes live at 4pm each day.
The Dashboard remains a major contribution to transparency in the Government’s approach to decision making and a vital tool informing policy makers and officials on how the pandemic is developing. The Dashboard provides near real-time data on key indicators that can show within days how public health measures such as lockdowns are affecting transmission.
My background is in mortality statistics and I have a lot of experience in the field of infectious disease surveillance. During my career, I have worked on several high-profile topics. At Public Health England (PHE) I led on tobacco, alcohol and gambling statistics, and at the Office for National Statistics (ONS), I led on mortality and cancer statistics. But nothing has come close to the sheer scale of operation, public interest and scrutiny of COVID-19 statistics. I joined the COVID-19 Dashboard team in April 2020 when I was asked to lend my expertise to the team. Today I am proud to be the Dashboard team’s leader.
Our daily outputs have grown considerably since the start of the pandemic when were published infections in the UK, cases tested in hospitals and hospital deaths. Over time we’ve added more data outputs such as hospital occupancy, testing data, national and local vaccination uptake figures and more recently, third primary and booster vaccine uptake figures.
Accessibility of data and providing these data in an easy to understand format for the public is a key driver in our commitment to developing the Dashboard. We continue to incorporate regular feedback from user surveys and user testing. We also provide downloadable data for those who want to access the granular data behind our main headline statistics.
Behind the easy-to-use interface is our team, of analysts, data engineers, content designers, interaction designers, user researchers and a project manager who together work closely with colleagues in technology to produce the entire Dashboard product. It’s unusual in statistical projects to have such a wide range of skill sets involved, but every team member adds their own specialist insights to make the Dashboard what it is today.
Ensuring that this highly complex product is updated at 4pm each day entails a highly pressured process which begins at 8am with monitoring data inputs and feeds as they start coming in. By the afternoon we are able to begin collating the headline figures and then just before going live we run a final quality assurance check.
We have around 30 different data sources from across the 4 nations of the UK covering a whole range of data from cases through to vaccinations. It’s a challenge to pull together disparate data sources with differing definitions, but the role of the dashboard is to make this simple so that people can see a variety of metrics all in one place and access these data to use themselves.
The COVID-19 Dashboard has a key role to play in helping us monitor, understand and respond to the pandemic. We will continue publishing data while this remains critical to the management of the pandemic.
For me as a statistician it has been a very challenging but highly rewarding period of my career. We receive a lot of positive user feedback and I also have very positive engagement with the public on Twitter. Having a profile on social media inevitably brings criticism too which can also be challenging, particularly when it’s focused on areas not directly linked to our work such as policy making.
I plan to eventually return to my previous role working on data on health improvement but I will always be incredibly proud of what I have been a part of achieving with the COVID-19 Dashboard - bringing open, transparent data to a wide audience and hopefully making a difference to how the nation responds to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Clare Griffiths leads the UK COVID-19 dashboard - the official government source for daily updates on COVID-19 data. Clare was previously Head of Statistics Profession at Public Health England.