One of the challenges of the COVID-19 era is that simply keeping abreast of what’s happening can be a full-time job. Most people aren’t trained epidemiologists. There are countless data sets, forecasts, and models that tell you different things, and very little context that helps you understand what it means. National numbers can lead a person to different conclusions than statewide data, while county-level information offers a clearer understanding of the risks and conditions in a local community. Testing data paints a different picture than hospitalization data, while rising case counts can either mean an increase in the disease’s spread, or an increase in our ability to detect it—information that, without vital context, is impossible to make sense of.
Thankfully, a new website launched by Texas 2036 (a Dallas-based nonprofit that uses data to craft public policy ideas) provides some of the cleanest, most well-organized, and useful tracking of the information we need to understand the state of the pandemic.
The COVID-19 Data Resource breaks down information into three categories: where Texas stands, as a whole, in relation to the White House’s reopening guidelines; overall statewide data; and individual data for each of Texas’s 254 counties. Then, within each category, the information gets more specific. You can see the economic impact of the pandemic, as it relates to jobless claims (and which industries are facing the largest percentage of them). You can look at both a daily tally of COVID cases and a rolling seven-day average, which provides a more representative picture of the spread of the disease. (Rolling averages smooth out unusual daily spikes that might occur if, say, a particular lab reports several days’ worth of information at once.) You can get a clear visual representation of the trends of the disease as it has changed over time—for daily cases, fatalities, and hospitalizations.
Seeing that kind of detailed information by county helps Texans understand the situation in their local communities. For example, the increase in cases in mid-May in Amarillo led to a significantly higher testing rate in Potter County than we’ve seen in Houston. That’s one of the points of the project, according to Texas 2036 policy director John Hryhorchuk. “One of the first things we noticed when putting together the dashboard was that different communities across Texas seemed to have significantly different access to information about what was going on in their areas,” he told Texas Monthly. “Providing a shared set of meaningful and timely metrics for everyone in the state was not only relevant in the reopening conversation, but it was also aligned to our focus on trying to provide data for all of Texas.”
The website updates multiple times a day, based on when data sources publish fresh numbers. All told, it’s a clean way to take in a lot of complex information, and get a sense of the current trends on both the state and local levels. The complicated nature of a pandemic makes it hard to keep up with those things, and it’s easy to pull out a single data point—say, an increase in the number of newly diagnosed cases, or a decrease in the daily reported fatalities—and misunderstand what information it actually communicates. Even if you’re not an amateur epidemiologist, the context on the Texas 2036 might help you avoid making a hasty generalization about a complicated situation.