As a physicist, I thrive on data. I love charts and graphs and I appreciate the many ways we can arrange and analyze information to explain the world around us. As a citizen who is concerned about societal issues, I actually love data even more. That’s because data, if we can gather it correctly and use it astutely, has the potential to make the world a better place.
If knowledge is power, data is the generator. The more data we have the better our ability will be to tackle the most pressing challenges of our time. Climate change, gun safety, poverty, addiction… data can help us make sense of these issues and develop new ways to address them.
Unfortunately, data has been getting a bad rap lately. When people deny that climate change exists or they claim that the number of COVID-19 cases is only going up because we’re testing more people, they undermine confidence in data and facts.
It’s time for this to stop.
We need to recommit ourselves to high standards of data collection and analysis. At the same time, we need to acknowledge that not all data is created equal, and that data can be used in misleading ways.
For example, every day we wake up to news coverage showing maps with COVID infection rates. Often the map is color coded to show which states are seeing an increase in cases, which are leveling off, and which are going down. It’s all based on good data, but it’s also misleading.
If Texas sets an all-time high in COVID cases one week and then slightly declines from that peak, the map makes it look like Texas is no longer a hot spot, when in reality it still might be among the fastest growing states for infection. Similarly, a relatively small outbreak in Wyoming might make that state look like a COVID epicenter on the map.
I prefer to look for sites that break down the numbers in ways that are more useful. One site I turn to, Covid Trends lets you select regions, data sets, and different scale models to visualize and compare how infection rates or death rates are changing over time. Using this information, we can create and test theories about why some states are doing better than others, and how we can make changes to save lives.
Tracking the virus is one way to use data, curing COVID-19 is another. As I’ve mentioned before (but it bears repeating), TEN7 launched an effort called “Computing for COVID” as a way to help researchers deal with the immense amount of data they are gathering about the virus. Our effort supports the University of Washington’s Baker Lab. We even created an “app” in DigitalOcean’s Marketplace and a website so you can join in this important effort that will hopefully speed up the search for treatments and cures.
Healthcare is just one of many areas that can be revolutionized by data.
This week we released an episode of the TEN7 Podcast featuring Clementine Jacoby, Executive Director of Recidiviz. Clementine is spearheading work to gather and use data to reform the criminal justice system and reduce incarceration rates. Their work is nonpartisan. It’s about providing a baseline of facts to encourage new approaches to a significant problem. Recidiviz is working with states, including North Dakota, to provide real-time data to help drive decision making. Hopefully this will lead to more effective measures to prevent people who get out of prison from ever going back.
When approached correctly, data can unite us. It gives us a foundation of reality and agreement so, while we may end up with different opinions, we’re at least starting from common ground.
I’m hopeful that data (and science) are poised to make a comeback! And I’m optimistic that this will lead to new and rapid progress around so many of the vital issues in front of us today.