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Key takeaways of the European Data Portal for COVID-19: Reflections from the editorial team

Data story process key insights
This is the final publication of the European Data Portal for COVID-19 editorial team. In this story, a summary of the insights gained and our key learnings from writing the data stories are discussed.
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Vast amounts of information and data on COVID-19 were made publicly available since the start of the pandemic. People who utilise these resources may experience difficulties in navigating through such an abundance of data and finding comfort with regards to its reliability.

From April till the end of July 2020, the editorial team of the European Data Portal (EDP) offers a dedicated section for COVID-19 with the purpose of providing a better understanding of the current global emergency. The aim is to ensure that everyone – even people without extensive data skills – can understand and gain insights from the available data. By providing manually validated datasets and data-related initiatives, as well as creating editorial pieces on COVID-19, European citizens – from policy makers to researchers and entrepreneurs – are empowered to take action in combatting the pandemic. The COVID-19 section does not only enable an objective understanding of the situation we are experiencing now, but also enlightens us and can guide data-driven decision making to overcome the crisis.

In this final publication, we are formally closing the EDP for COVID-19 section. We will first summarise the topics that have been researched for the COVID-19 data stories. Thereafter, we will share our key takeaways from the past months’ activities. The takeaway messages are structured to reflect the process of writing the data stories:

  • Finding the data
  • Understanding the data
  • Creating insights from the data
  • Drawing conclusions and the importance of an expert point of view

 

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SUMMARY OF COVID-19 DATA STORIES

 

In the past months, the EDP team has compiled a curated list of 62 COVID-19 related datasets and 60 data initiatives. In addition, 18 Data Stories have been written to provide more detail on specific topics, which led to interesting insights into the pandemic.

COVID-19 has upended many areas of our lives as we knew them. With the data stories, the EDP team has tackled topics that were directly impacted by the pandemic, such as government policy responses, contact-tracing applications, testing strategies in various countries, preparedness and approaches of healthcare systems, and a comparison of the current pandemic with previous ones. In addition, the virus heavily influenced the world economy, hence the effects on the economy and the changes in the labour market were also discussed.

Besides these directly impacted areas, some indirect effects of the pandemic were also touched upon in the data stories. For instance, how the sudden changes in our lifestyle due to the restrictive measures led to a reduction in traffic, the exploration of alternative modes of transport, the implementation of online education, and positive environmental impacts. On the other hand, the crisis also magnified the food security issues in different parts of the world, and it will likely widen socio-economic inequality in the world.

The undeniable impact of the pandemic has no borders and placed people – especially the elderly – at risk. Most countries had to implement restrictive measures to contain the spread of the virus and reduce the pressure on the healthcare sector. As a result of lockdowns, millions of people are now working from home, more than a billion children are out of their classrooms and major events are being cancelled. The closure of workplaces caused many industries to face immense pressure, e.g. the tourism industry,  and put millions of jobs at risk.

Additionally, the restrictive measures led to radical changes in society. As social distancing became the new standard and travel opportunities dropped to a minimum, questions rise regarding how long this will last and whether some measures will lead to permanent changes in societal behaviour. For example, it is expected that people will work from home more frequently, ponder carefully about travelling by plane, and schools will extend and accelerate the implementation of digital learning in their curriculum. As climate and pollution have benefited briefly from the global lockdown, people are also getting more aware of the link between their behaviour and environmental effects.

The restrictive measures have a major impact on the economy, of which the effects are expected to echo even more starkly in the upcoming months. Job losses, bankruptcies, changing consumer behaviour, loss of confidence in the economy, unpredictable stock markets, and global financial support are all examples of what we are observing today and can continue to expect in the near future.

As we have observed, most countries, companies, and people were not prepared for a crisis like this. Creating the COVID-19 data stories unravelled the undeniable role of data as an asset in fighting the current pandemic and being prepared for the next one.

 

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KEY TAKEAWAYS

 

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Key takeaways

Writing the data stories was an educative experience providing different perspectives, insights, and learnings.  Below some of the key takeaways and lessons learned from the research that the EDP for COVID-19 team conducted are reflected upon. We grouped the lessons learned into four categories that reflect the process of writing the data stories:

  • Finding the data
  • Understanding the data
  • Creating insights from the data
  • Drawing conclusions and the importance of an expert point of view

 

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Finding the data

Finding the data

It is clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has a major impact across the globe. In response, many governments and institutes have been creating and gathering a large amount of data to monitor the spread of the disease and its impact on health. Since this data is mostly in the hands of public bodies, it is often made available to the public as open data. We also witnessed many private enterprises and media companies opening their data pertaining to COVID-19 to the public. As such, a vast amount of public data is available for people to directly track and gain insights on the impact of the virus.

However, finding data does not always go without challenges. While finding epidemiological data on COVID-19 was feasible due to its widespread availability, in our experience attaining data on some other areas to understand the indirect impact of the virus - such as on the impact of cancelled events or the availability of healthcare equipment - was more challenging. So, we noticed quite a difference in terms of the extent to which certain topics are supported by data. It is logical that the availability of data depends on what is most interesting and valuable to the wider public. However, it may be important to reflect whether the data collected on COVID-19 also leads to meaningful conclusions. For instance, if one examines the number of COVID-19 cases in a country, it is also critical to consider what that specific country’s testing policy is – as cases can only be identified when tests are conducted. During the first months of the outbreak this data on testing was missing, despite the value of this data for providing a more accurate representation of the situation. 

Creating, maintaining, and publishing data requires effort and time. When the skills, tools, and channels to publish and discover data are in place, data can be collected and reused faster. However, the extent to which these aspects are available differs among industries. Even if data is available, there might still be other challenges that relate to finding the right data. For instance, the publication of data on national data portals are in the respective countries’ own official languages, which poses a challenge to searching and finding relevant data internationally. Also, the spread of data across different sources with their own definitions and standards makes it difficult to combine it.

 

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Understanding the data

Understanding the data

It is important to understand the data that is available to transform it into value. On the one hand, to prevent duplication of effort, it is important to gain more awareness of what data is already out there, and of what work others have been doing processing and transforming that data to put it to use. On the other hand, unused datasets are “dormant” and may contain information or insights that need to be unlocked.

Some may argue that data scientists are crucial in understanding the data. Indeed, data scientists are experienced at quickly recognising patterns and information in a dataset and are of great help in quickly comprehending the data. However, in our experience, you do not necessarily have to be an expert to be able to understand the data, being data-savvy suffices provided that the structure, language, and content is documented in an organised way.

 

 

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Creating insights

Creating insights from the data

When sharing data and insights, it is important to provide an accurate representation of the situation being described. Visualisation of data and articulation of the insights helps convey its key messages to individuals, including those with less advanced data skills. A great example of the supportive power of visualisations in understanding huge amounts of data are the COVID-19 dashboards. The European Data Portal team published the data stories to highlight the availability of valuable datasets that can illustrate and capture the impact of COVID-19. Moreover, we created several (interactive) visualisations (e.g. on the demand for hospital bed for COVID-19 patients, global COVID-19 related financial measures, and impact on traffic and air pollution) to enable readers to get a better understanding of the data.

We realised that a dialogue between multiple points of view is needed to produce valid insights. The COVID-19 crisis is complicated, and many factors influence how results are interpreted. These factors are often spread over different competencies, skills and data sources and should be combined before one can draw conclusions. This requires knowledge of the underlying processes and thus expertise of the field. That is why we have limited our effort to describing the data and its sources without actively deriving conclusions from it, but rather empowering you, the reader, to do that. We hope that by making open data better attainable, experts can use this data for their own research and then come to new conclusions.

 

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Drawing conclusions

Drawing conclusions from the data

It is necessary to be aware of the impact data can have, as it is instrumental to data-driven decision making e.g. for public authorities and policy makers. Even if the data is reliable and easy to understand, one may not always draw robust conclusions, as this can involve individual judgement or be subject to bias. Researchers, data scientists and other professionals must document their process, make it reproducible, and be able to defend their results and conclusions.

Benefits can be gained only if researchers and scientists are persistent and loud in disseminating their findings. This is true even if such findings predict unpopular events such as viral outbreaks or convey difficult messages, such as the effectiveness of personal protective equipment (PPE) in preventing contagion. Experts have a responsibility to do so, as the timely analysis of data and to act in light of it can save an extensive amount of lives and preserve the economy from significant damage.

 

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To conclude, achieving the benefits we describe requires findable datasets, proper understanding of the data, means to create insights from the data, and some reflection on drawing conclusions. Moreover, it requires a cultural change, in which all of us become more data literate and embrace it as a valuable means of information for evidence-based decision-making.

As stated in the beginning of this article, the section of the European Data Portal dedicated to COVID-19 was actively updated until end of June 2020. The content will be available until the end of July in its original location on the website. From that point onward, the datasets will still be available in the Data section and the data stories moved to the Impact & Studies section.

 

We would like to give a big shout-out to all the healthcare workers and all individuals employed in critical occupancies who continue to work and help those in need during this pandemic. These hard workers must cope with scarce resources, endure long hours, and face dangerous situations. We would not be able to manage this crisis without them.

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