During the pandemic we’ve been inundated with data. Every news broadcast and government briefing features the latest figures on cases and, sadly, deaths.
Much has been, and will be, written about the process by which that data has been collected, presented and communicated to the public. It hasn’t always gone well at any level.
This post isn’t about Coronavirus data. But it’s prompted by two related questions I asked myself this week: why does some data become so visible? And what does that say about us?
It’s obvious why we’re seeing daily Coronavirus data: we’re in a bloody pandemic. It’s in the national interest and that data has shaped our behaviour and public debate. Even if there’s a staunch set of people that dismiss it as a work of fiction.
What other data is as visible?
The weather forecasts
Weather reports and forecasts are everywhere. But that wasn’t always the case. The first public weather forecast was published in The Times in 1861 by Robert Fitzroy, founder of the Met Office and captain of the Beagle.
He didn’t have permission to do this, he just did it. The growing network of telegraphs provided the data infrastructure to make it possible. This was the birth of weather forecasts as a public service.
The forecasts only ran for a few years. But were eventually restarted due to public demand. This ultimately lead to numerous advances in weather forecasting and significant investments into the data infrastructure necessary to produce them.
Weather forecasts are just data, produced by analysing other data using sophisticated models. We should refer to AI and machine-learning as creating forecasts. Or just estimating. Because that’s what they’re often doing.
There’s an alternate world where this public service and investment in public data infrastructure didn’t happen.
What other data is in the public eye?
To pull together some other examples or data in the public eye, I asked people for suggestions. There were a lot of great responses in that thread.
I saw some broad categories in the examples:
- Seasonal data that gets reported at specific times of the year like surfing(?), pollen and cherry blossom forecasts (thanks Sally!)
- Regional data that gets reported in specific areas. Tide times, for example
- National data that gets reported daily or weekly. Who is at number 1 in the music charts? How many Coronavirus cases have there been?
- Other occasional data that is tied to significant events like elections or football matches. Or just hits the news after the periodic release of some data that might prompt a story. For example, inflation rates and cost of living
There’s plenty of regularly produced statistics, indices and measures that only rarely get reported on the news. Even though they can and do have significant insights into our lives.
Public reporting of data reflects our priorities
Clearly, the media have a significant role in deciding what stores — what data — make it into the public eye. Let’s assume that their choices are driven by public interest.
Reporting is also driven by the availability of the necessary data. It’s easy to report on the latest football scores. That data is cheap to collect and readily available. But you have to wait for monthly, quarterly or annual figures for most official and national statistics.
As a society we invest in the data infrastructure that delivers the data we want to see. The Met Office maintains a huge network of weather observation stations and spends vast amounts every few years on new super computers.
We could be reporting daily figures on the cost of living, homelessness, or air quality. Or measuring how quickly we are approaching Overshoot Day. Or progress towards generating more renewable energy.
If we wanted to see these figures then we’d build the necessary data infrastructure to produce them. There are no real technical barriers. Just lots of political ones.
I don’t think we need national dashboards. I don’t think we should be driven by data. Daily reporting of data will be ineffective unless it usefully informs people’s decisions. Not everyone will pay attention, or believe the data.
The future is full of significant challenges. Climate change creates a real and pressing need for us to adapt how we live.
If tackling these challenges is important then at what point might we choose to raise the visibility of progress reporting so that is regularly, even daily, in the public eye?
Is there data that would help us individually make different choices? Or at least give us a sense of shared progress? Or it be useful to see that so frequently?
I don’t know.
But I think it’s important to reflect on what we choose to see or not see, and why. If only as yet more evidence of our priorities.