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.

Living through history or sociological processes

With rapid changes in the world, it can be easy to see how this might be a notable historical moment that people in the future will look back on.

But, I cannot help think of the sociological processes that we are seeing at play right now. Pandemics and diseases have come before yet not in the era of such globalization, Internet and smartphones, and particular political, economic, and social conditions. There will be history about this all but here are just a few of the sociological processes we are truly seeing in action:

-Globalization. The travel and interconnectedness that is normal now has particular implications for diseases as well as the consequences.

-The shift toward the Internet and smartphones enables new methods for work as well as the possibility of information and knowledge to go all sorts of directions.

-Political and economic consequences of social actions. As just one example, social distancing can help combat the pandemic but it threatens many taken-for-granted interactions and settings. Small talk and being around other people should not be taken for granted; they are part of the social order.

-Health is a social issue, from its definition to how it plays out in individual lives and societies.

And this is just a start. There is already a lot of opinions out there about how the pandemic will change society once the disease disappears. We will have to wait and see. Sure, this will all be history at some point but for now there are a lot of sociological material to think through.

Changing the Y-axis scale across graphs – to good effect

In a look at COVID-19 cases across countries, the New York Times changed the Y-axis on the different graphs:

COVID19CurvesAcrossCountries

Typically, readers of graphs should beware when someone changes the scale on the Y-axis; this leads to issues when interpreting the data and can make it look like trends are present when they are not. See two earlier posts – misleading charts of 2015, State of the Union data presented in 2013 – for examples.

But, in this case, adjusting the scale makes some sense. The goal is to show exponential curves, the type of change when a disease spreads throughout a population, and then hopefully a peak and decline on the right side. Some countries have very few cases – such as toward the bottom like in Morocco or Hungary or Mexico – and some have many more – like Italy or South Korea – but the general shape can be similar. Once the rise starts, it is expected to continue until something stops it. And the pattern can look similar across countries.

Also, it is helpful that the creators of this point out at the top that “Scales are adjusted in each country to make the curve more readable.” It is not always reported when Y-axes are altered – and this lack of communication could be intentional – and then readers might not pick up on the issue.

Americans like their private single-family homes – but maybe less if forced to be there

The 2000 book Suburban Nation is a New Urbanist declaration. It includes this argument regarding the public and private realms in the United States:

Americans may have the finest private realm in the developed world, but our public realm is brutal. (41)

This comes amidst a discussion of the suburban single-family home, one of the most attractive features of suburbia for Americans. American homes are large, providing plenty of space for occupants, a range of activities, and vehicles. They can be filled with all sorts of consumer goods, from electronics to clothes to media to equipment for hobbies. Through the Internet and other connected devices, occupants can access all sorts of information, videos, music, and other parts of the world. The homes can be the single largest investment for many. They are often separated from other dwellings (or at most share a wall or two). For decades, Americans have promoted, built, and purchased such homes.

All of this may be good for many Americans but what do these private realms feel like when the occupants cannot leave? It is one thing to choose these private spaces; it is another to be pushed by outside forces to stay in them. With the spread of COVID-19, people are being encouraged to stay home. Does “the finest private realm” become confining when one cannot easily leave?

We are about to find out. Even if Americans might prefer their private realms, some might miss the public realm or the easy opportunities to visit other private realms (such as stores and shopping malls). This may not lead to a revival of public spaces but it might remind some homeowners that the private realm has limitations.

Infectious diseases in urban and suburban life

Americans already have a predilection for suburban life; might a global pandemic push even more people out of cities and to the edges of metropolitan regions? One take regarding safety in suburban life:

As maps like this show, major metropolitan areas are bearing the brunt of the Covid-19 infections spreading across North America. And that makes sense: Though there’s no way to know for sure how the virus arrived, it almost certainly came by way of an international flight to a major airport (or several of them). But while infectious disease spreads faster where people are more densely clustered — hence the strategy of social distancing to contain the coronavirus — that doesn’t necessarily make suburban or rural areas safer, health experts say…

That is not to say that cities aren’t Petri dishes — they are. Relative to rural areas, urban centers do provide stronger chains of viral transmission, with higher rates of contact and larger numbers of infection-prone people. And historically, urbanites paid a price for this vulnerability…

Modern transportation networks have made the population shield that rural areas once provided much more porous. Now that humans and freight can travel from, say, Hong Kong to Los Angeles in less than 13 hours — and arrive by vehicle to somewhere sparsely populated hours after that — outbreaks can happen just about anywhere. New pathogens tend to arrive sooner in global hubs, but that doesn’t mean they can’t quickly reach rural locales and proliferate from there, says Benjamin Dalziel, a professor of mathematics at Oregon State University who studies population dynamics…

But while the CDC recommends decreasing social contact to limit the spread of the virus, that’s just as doable in a downtown apartment as a countryside manor. Says Viboud: “If you’re staying at home and limiting outside contact, you’d achieve the same purpose.”

Three thoughts come to mind:

  1. This highlights the connectedness of cities and suburbs today, even if there is significant physical distance separating communities. The rate at which people travel around the world, to other regions, and throughout regions is high compared to all of human history and is relatively easy to do. Cities and suburbs are not separate places; they are parts of interdependent regions that are highly connected to other places.
  2. Safety and health was a part of creating the suburbs in the United States but it is hard to know how this might matter in the future. Given all the reasons people now settle in the suburbs, would avoiding communicable diseases be a top factor? I would think not, particularly compared to factors like housing prices or amenities (schools, quality of life, etc.), or demographics.
  3. If particular places are not that much safer, does the sprawl of American life then limit the response to any illness? Imagine the Chicago region with dozens of hospitals that need to be equipped spread throughout the region as opposed to that same number of people packed into a smaller area where it is easier to get supplies and people to medical facilities. Or, the need to supply grocery stores throughout a huge region.

Even in a country of sprawl and limited public life, there are plenty of places where people come in contact with many others

Watching reactions to the coronavirus in recent weeks presents a paradox connected to American social life and addressing contagious diseases: the country has pushed sprawl and private homes for decades and public life and community life is said to be in decline; yet, there are numerous spaces, public and private, where Americans regularly come together. And under the threat of disease, shutting down locations and/or quarantining large numbers of people would change social life dramatically even in an individualized, spread out society.

A few examples illustrate this well. One essential private space is the grocery store. Even in the age of the Internet deliveries and eating out, many Americans need to acquire food and other supplies for daily life. The experience of going to Walmart or another grocery chain is not necessarily a public experience – direct interaction with people there is likely limited – but the number of people who can cycle through a major store on a daily basis is high. Another semi-private space is churches. By choice, Americans attend religious services at a higher rate than most industrialized countries. Once there is a congregation of one hundred people or more, this brings together people who participate in a wide range of activities and go to a wide number of places.

An example of public spaces that would change dramatically are mass transit lines and transportation hubs. In a country where relatively few people take mass transit on a daily basis, there are a good number of Americans dependent on buses, trains, and subways and people who use multiple forms on a regular basis. Plus, the United States has relatively busy airports. A second example involves schools. Americans tend to think education is the secret to success and getting ahead and students from preschool to post-graduate settings gather in buildings to attend class and do related activities. For these students, school is about learning and social life, classrooms and lunchrooms, eating areas, and play or recreation areas. Schools and colleges can draw people from a broad set of backgrounds and locations.

Our public life may not be at the same level as it is in Italy; instead of sidewalk cafes, Americans can go through the drive-through of Starbucks. Perhaps this means it will be relatively easy for some Americans to quarantine or keep their social distance: many live in their private homes and have limited social interactions anyhow. At the same time, significant public health measures would change social life in ways that are noticeable and that some might miss. Indeed, could a national reminder of the social ties Americans do have lead to a revival in social interactions in times of more stability?