Editor’s Note: Coronavirus data should be better organized across New York

‘Editor’s Note’ is a new, weekly column written by News Director Josh Durso. Look for it each Sunday exclusively on FingerLakes1.com. Check out more of them by clicking here.


We have a COVID-19 reporting problem. In fact, there are a bunch of COVID-related reporting problems. 

I am referring to the ways in which the state, counties, K-12 school districts, public colleges, and private universities report COVID-19 data. Our Coronavirus Pandemic coverage has been read more than 980,000 times as of November 20th, which includes our day-by-day tracker dedicated to letting readers know about key data in their community

Our team’s approach was all hands on deck. 

Throughout the pandemic, a major concern I had leading our small, but dedicated team — was that because of the gravity of the moment — something could be lost. By something I mean, coverage of other important topics. Local government activity, daily breaking news, community updates, etc. The stuff that is absolutely central to the product that our 27 million annual visitors appreciate. I was also worried about our ability to continue innovating, producing podcasts, webcast series, in-depth investigative reporting or just ensure that our content is evolving.

Thankfully, the newsroom — from top-to-bottom — responded with ideas, hard work, and a product that everyone could be proud of. 

Our COVID-19 tracker has been one of the most-read pieces of content on our platform. Keeping that up-to-date with the latest information from all of the various sources that exist in our 11 county coverage area has been a nightmare. To this point, we have focused on the things that are within internal control. Like, streamlining our COVID tracker, so that readers can check it out on our website, mobile app (iPhone/Android), or jump right to the spreadsheet directly. In my view, that last option is unique for any organization, because it means limiting our ability to monetize an already under-monetized product. Remember, there are no paywalls or subscription requirements on FingerLakes1.com. We have a Patreon portal for those who wish to contribute, but ask absolutely nothing of our visitors other than their continued readership.

You might be wondering: Why do I call it a nightmare to actually aggregate all this data? Afterall, local health departments are releasing a wealth of information online, through email, and on social media. It should be easy, right?

Wrong.

Every county is doing something unique, releasing different data points on differing schedules, making aggregation almost impossible at times. To make matters worse, New York State hasn’t regulated the release of county data in any way, and it’s own tracker has been widely viewed as one of the least accurate regularly updated data sets. In fact, it’s hard to get a grasp on where the state is pulling the data for their COVID-19 tracker. 

What’s Gone Wrong?

Wayne County doesn’t release quarantine data. They publish fairly comprehensive daily reports to Facebook, but provide no outbound link on their website to those updates. To make matters worse, the COVID tracking they provide on that official website was barely acceptable when the pandemic began. 

Yates County doesn’t publish active cases. Residents are left doing the math. Then to make matters worse, they merge “contacts in isolation and quarantine” into one data point. This is confusing for the uninitiated because of the next example. 

Cayuga County publicizes active cases as those in ‘Mandatory Isolation’. If they are active cases call them that. Part of the challenge in conveying the gravity of the situation here has been that language and terms feel ambiguous. 

There are other issues, but my fingers are getting tired. Let’s talk about solutions.

What Can Be Done?

  • Get the state’s dashboard up-to-date.
  • Help counties get on a manageable schedule (for updates).
  • Publish them in one central place (not Facebook).
  • Release the right pieces of data (that give context).

If daily updates are going to, in fact, be daily updates then they should include the same components. If we pool together all of the things every county in our 11-county coverage area releases in their current reports this is what we’re left with:

  • Total cases
  • Total recoveries
  • Active cases
  • Actively quarantined
  • Actively hospitalized (vs. capacity – beds)
  • Actively in ICU (vs. capacity – beds)
  • Total deaths
  • Rolling 7-day average for positive tests

There’s plenty of justification for this data to be included in every update. The data exists. It just needs to be made more readily available across all platforms.


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