Using and interpreting alternative data sources to examine COVID-19 impact

In a world full of data, businesses, investors, and others have access to newer sources of information that can provide insights into responses to COVID-19:

For instance, Angus says that monitoring China’s internet throughout the pandemic showed how industrial plants in the worst-affected regions—which operate servers and computers—shut down during the outbreak. In the last few weeks, as the emergency abated, things have started crawling back to normalcy, even if we are still far from pre-Covid-19 levels, and the evidence might be polluted by plants being restarted just to hit government-imposed power consumption targets. “China is not normal yet,” Angus says. The country’s internet latency suggests that “recovery is happening in China, but there are still a lot of people who must be facing at-home-life for their activities.”…

Combining data from vessel transponders with satellite images, he has periodically checked how many oil tankers are in anchorage in China, unable to deliver their cargo—an intimation both of how well China’s ports are functioning amid the pandemic, and of how well industrial production is keeping up.

Madani also relies on TomTom’s road traffic data for various Chinese and Italian cities to understand how they are affected by quarantines and movement restrictions. “What we’ve seen over the past two weeks is a big revival in congestion,” he says. “There’s more traffic going on now in China, in the big cities, apart from Wuhan.”…

Pollution data is another valuable source of information. Over the past weeks, people on Twitter have been sharing satellite images of various countries, showing that pollution levels are dropping across the industrialised world as a result of coronavirus-induced lockdowns. But where working-from-home twitteratis see a poetic silver lining, Madani sees cold facts about oil consumption.

Three quick thoughts:

1. Even with all of this data, interpreting it is still an important task. People could look at similar data and come to similar conclusions. Or, they might have access to one set of data and not another piece and then draw different conclusions. This becomes critical when people today want data-driven responses or want to back up their position with data. Simply having data is not enough.

2. There is publicly available data – with lots of charts and graphs going around in the United States about cases – and then there is data that requires subscriptions, connections, insider information. Who has access to what data still matters.

3. We have more data than ever before and yet this does not necessarily translate into less anxiety or more preparation regarding certain occurrences. Indeed, more information might make things worse for some.

In sum, we can know more about the world than ever before but we are still working on ways to utilize and comprehend that information that might have been unthinkable decades ago.

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