Cities turn off health dashboards as COVID crisis wanes


During the COVID-19 pandemic, the data dashboard has become one of the most popular new gadgets in cities and counties across the United States.

These days, those hastily constructed tools to provide some sort of window into the pandemic are starting to grow quiet and gloomy as the virus transitions from a major health crisis to a manageable part of American life.

Looking back on those months — and some of the lessons learned — data experts say the dashboard isn’t always the best way to understand a crisis and the best response to it.

“Dashboards don’t always have the context,” Justin Elszasz, Baltimore’s chief data officer, said Tuesday at the Bloomberg CityLab conference in Amsterdam. “And they don’t always tell a story. And what CDOs need to help do is tell a story around the data. Because that’s what motivates people to change. This is what motivates people to make decisions.

“I also think this is a key responsibility for chief data officers,” he added.

During the pandemic, CDOs have quickly become key officials in public decision-making circles, assuming prominent senior leadership roles at the city, county, and state levels. They were often asked to gather and analyze vast and divergent data to give leaders the information they needed to make quick and essential decisions during a rapidly evolving public health crisis.

“We knew containment had failed and we needed to move to a mitigation strategy. But what did that really mean? How are we going to make the right decisions? recalled Grace Simrall, head of civic innovation and technology in Louisville, Ky., also speaking on the panel.

Looking ahead, data stewards have wondered how many lessons have really been learned during the pandemic, as funding and other resources for public health revert to the short-term public health received before COVID-19.

“As some of our funding sources have dried up, other funding sources will dry up,” Simrall said. “And eventually, we’ll be back where we started, which is with really nothing, in terms of data.”

Louisville is beginning the process of removing its COVID-19 dashboard, in part because of a mismatch between dashboard data and county-level data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We recognize that there are other sources of information that continue to serve as a leading indicator of the canary in the coal mine,” Simrall said, drawing attention to the data collected from the wastewater. Cities across the country regularly look for the COVID-19 virus in sewage and track its trajectory as a barometer of the level of community spread of the virus.

“The city made a very strong bet that this would help us get ahead of the spread. And of course he did,” Simrall said.

But when it comes to those dashboards, today they’re largely “outdated, or unused, or both,” Elszasz said.

“What we should be asking from chief data officers is decision support,” he added. “Don’t tell us you want a dashboard. Tell us you need help making a decision.

Government technology is a sister site of Governing. Both are divisions of e.Republic.

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation, and more. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, California.

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