Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins issued a stay at home order, pointing to projections from the COVID Act Now tool. (Source: CBS News DFW)
How a group of Silicon Valley designers, epidemiologists, and public policy wonks created a tool for truth in their spare time
On Tuesday, March 17, 2020, Joseph Ensminger received a text message asking if he could make time to help launch a data platform that projects COVID infections, hospitalizations, and deaths across the United States. The first step was getting in front of people who could make the necessary public health decision: America’s legislators, private sector leaders, and public health officials. The challenge was that this list did not yet exist.
Within 24 hours, Ensminger and his colleague Allen Hinkleman had scraped government and university websites, hit up organizations and influencers for contacts, and worked with an Alaska State Representative to assemble an email list of almost 20,000 contacts.
They sent out their first email at 3 a.m. Friday morning, and by the time they woke up over 50,000 people had visited the new site. As of March 31st, the site has had over 8 million unique visitors.
Ensminger was one of the first members of COVID Act Now.
One of the problems navigating a global pandemic in a country whose health information is decentralized and in which there is no reliable leadership is gaining access to useful information. Between conspiracy theories propagated online and in broadcast news and irregular testing regimens, it is difficult, if not impossible, for a person with no specialty knowledge to filter the conflicting information and that includes policymakers. This is especially true when it is a “novel” virus, meaning it has never been identified in humans and against which we have no immunity. In this case, like SARS and MERS, it is an animal virus that made the jump to humans.
With that in mind, the team behind COVID Act Now, has brought together all reliable, available data in an interface that allows public health experts to answer questions like when will our state’s hospitals be overloaded? How much can social distancing really flatten the curve in my state?
“Without intervention, COVID-19 will grow by roughly 20X every 2 weeks,” the group said in a press release. “If we try to fight COVID-19 in the present we will lose. We can only beat COVID-19 by understanding what it will do to us in the near future.”
The group behind the tool -- epidemiologists, doctors, and other health professionals, communications experts and designers, data scientists, engineers, and public health officials -- has created the site to “enable political leaders to quickly make decisions in their Coronavirus response informed by best available data and modeling.” But it may have the knock-on effect of giving an anxious public the comfort of a higher signal-to-noise ratio in an environment that sometimes seems almost pure noise.
COVID Act Now visualizes the data by county for each state, illustrating the number of hospitalizations under different containment scenarios.
The tool consists of a map, clickable by state, as well as information on the tool’s modeling, personnel, and endorsements. It is designed to specifically answer three questions.
- What will the effect of COVID last in my region and what is the timeframe?
- How long until my hospital system is under severe pressure?
- How will various intervention options address the spread of Coronavirus?
Raw data may provide the basis of the information economy, but tools like data visualization help to mint it into spendable specie.
Founded by Max Henderson, Rep Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, Igor Kofman, and Zack Rosen, with medical and policy guidance from Stanford’s Dr. Nirav R. Shah, the initial team also includes Ready State strategist Joe Ensminger.
According to Ensminger, the project is gaining steep ground. When he joined two weeks ago -- prior to the launch -- he was one of a half dozen people. Misha Chellam, a mentor and former boss to Ensminger, asked him to help out. There are now nearly 100.
“I worked alongside the founders to get initial feedback from epidemiologists and public health scientists,” said Ensminger in an interview with Yale Press. “That led our team to know we’re on the right track. That led to me backing the broader team in reaching out to all of America’s legislators, important private sector leaders, and public health officials.”
“A group of individuals banded together to provide the best data infrastructure possible.”
– Max Henderson
Ensminger also led the charge to assemble 15,000 contact emails. The database included every legislator in the country, every governor, and top public health experts, business leaders, and academics. Since launch, Ensminger has been helping the core team recruiting volunteers and speaking to state and public health officials to explain how to use the tool.
The rationale for the urgency in acting now includes the reality that states which do not make proactive decisions to enforce social distancing are likely to experience hospital patient overflow, which in turn will result in higher mortality rates for the disease.
“If I weren’t doing this, I’d have significantly more anxiety than I do, especially for parents and grandparents,” he said. “For me, increased anxiety needs increased work hours.” Ensminger always has a non-work project going and he dropped everything to join this effort.
“Individual decisions don’t matter until they do,” he said. “This tool is meant to influence policymakers but it is also my way to make a better decision for my family and friends. There are actions you can take that, when others take them too, can help build good into the world. One tweet to a legislator may not be powerful on its own, but when it’s part of a chorus it does. In other words, your actions do matter.”
The practical outcome of the tool has been providing information that helps people in influential positions to make smart decisions. That includes the policy-makers at whom it is aimed. Alaska State Representative Jonathan Kreis-Tomkins came on board before the launch. He has provided a communications circuit to other policymakers, and not just in the US. Governor Jared Polis of Colorado used the Covid Act Now tool in his situation room as his administration made the decision to quarantine. Other policymakers who’ve employed the tool include those in Oregon, Alabama, and Arkansas.
Dr. Nirav Shah says, “Shelter in place is working. The data is shifting”
As Jane Addams of Hull House said, “Action indeed is the sole medium of expression for ethics.”
For more information on the project, how to use the site, and how to volunteer, click here.
Epidemiologists and data scientists have projected the coronavirus infection rates and hospital capacities in different states based on different courses of action. https://t.co/dSiohxeDX4— Andrew Yang🧢 (@AndrewYang) March 25, 2020
California's live feed from COVID Act Now