April 7, 2020

The Devil is in the Data

COVID-19 peak projections are all over the map, leaving decisionmakers with multiple models to choose from as they try to put policies in place to control the spread. The conservative American Enterprise Institute is drawing attention for a new and sobering four-phase roadmap for reopening the American economy: (1) Slowing the spread through physical distancing while ramping up health system capacity; (2) Cautiously relaxing distancing measures state-by-state; (3) Lifting all restrictions once protections are in place; and (4) Preparing for the next pandemic. Notably, the roadmap relies on deciding whether to progress to the next phase — or regress to the last one — based on real-time data, which remains incomplete due to limited testing capacity. Meanwhile, one of the White House’s preferred models from the University of Washington is more optimistic. The models aren’t in direct contrast – one is a proposal to re-open the country and the other is a model created to support planning around state-by-state healthcare needs and mortality predictions. But the AEI plan lays out a more cautious, slow and intensive approach than the University of Washington data might suggest is necessary. There are other sources as well, for instance the District of Columbia is relying on UPenn’s model, which predicts a peak in the nation’s capital two months after the University of Washington’s model estimates. One thing is clear – models and the policy decisions that flow from them are only as good as their data inputs, and better measurement is needed to reopen the country responsibly.

Local News is Critical and Endangered

Local news outlets are taking a devastating financial hit during the coronavirus crisis, despite surges in interest as Americans look for regional coverage of the pandemic’s effects. Many local newsrooms have already downsized in recent years, and they now face additional pressure as advertising and event revenues decline. Radio stations are particularly vulnerable given their reliance on ad revenue from local businesses that may not be currently operating, let alone spending on commercials. Some newspapers around the country have announced cost-saving measures such as moving to online-only editions or cutting verticals, while others are eliminating paywalls to give residents to vital updates. Many more have already had to furlough or lay off staffers—including Louisiana’s largest news organization, The Advocate in New Orleans, even as the city is experiencing the highest death rate in the country. Local outlets are critical to communicate updates on business closures, social distancing policies and resources for those impacted by illness or economic downturn. Some also have been compiling lists of companies hiring in the region. What we don’t yet know is whether the important contributions by local news – particularly in times of crisis – will be enough to ensure these outlets survive the latest in a series of devastating blows to their bottom lines.

COVID-19 by the Numbers

Pandemic Privacy

This week the Senate Commerce Committee is planning a “paper hearing” – the committee’s new plan for getting smart on an issue during a pandemic – on big data’s efficacy in the fight against COVID-19. The hearing scheduled for Thursday comes on the heels of Google’s announcement Friday that it wants to add a new, if intangible, weapon to the fight against COVID-19: data. The search giant, which holds a gargantuan trove of information about where Americans are and have been, says it will assess whether people are following government orders and staying home or venturing out. Google’s “community mobility reports” will measure increases or decreases in foot traffic to workplaces, retail and recreation locations, parks and more in 131 countries. Google says its reports won’t display information for any single person, but privacy advocates in Washington have long warned about revelations that can be gleaned from location data.

Events in the Time of COVID-19

Nearly every organization is figuring out how they can bring people together while remaining physically apart. According to Vox, the economic loss from major tech conference cancellations alone is more than $1 billion. Every day, we’re seeing more events cancelled, moving online or postponed – including the Democratic National Convention, which was pushed back a month to the week of August 17. While there is no substitute for an in-person experience, virtual events have potential to advance much of what the original convening intended to achieve. As businesses consider moving their events online, most event fundamentals will still apply – including reaching a targeted audience and delivering compelling content – but adjustments are necessary to accommodate limited attention spans, fewer opportunities for networking and risks of digital event crashing. While digital platforms like Zoom scale rapidly to meet demand, many are already wondering if virtual or hybrid events will become the new normal. One thing is for certain: contingency plans will become standard in event planning.

In pre-pandemic analyses, we’ve found that members of Congress are often split solidly along party lines in terms of who they interact with on social media. But in tweets related to COVID-19, members of both parties are engaging with certain government entities—particularly the Small Business Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Treasury Department, the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services. Could this show of social media “bipartisanship” signal alignment on a new stimulus bill? We’ll soon find out.