[OPINION] We are more than data, but we can’t even get the data right

[OPINION] We are more than data, but we can’t even get the data right
'These datasets aren’t just numbers; these are people'

It’s all about the data during this pandemic, some would say.

“I was surprised – the data discrepancy for land area was not just for this one LGU. It was across all LGUs. Can you just imagine? How does your country deal with this?” one of our international partners said over a meeting.

Honestly, I wasn’t surprised. The Philippines has a reputation for rather poor datasets that don’t tally up. And the truth is, we usually don’t do anything about it. This has been the system for some time now.

The numbers don’t add up

I was collating COVID-related data for our organization’s individual risk assessment. I started off with checking Marikina’s data for my colleague who lives there. I went to the Department of Health’s (DOH) COVID-19 tracker, and cross-referenced it with the LGU’s latest data. They didn’t match.

DOH COVID-19 tracker screenshot for Marikina’s data updates

Marikina’s COVID updates from their LGU’s Facebook page

I did the same for my colleague who lives in Parañaque.

DOH COVID-19 tracker for Parañaque’s data updates

Parañaque’s COVID updates from their LGU’s Facebook page

They also didn’t match. You would think it was an issue of either DOH’s COVID-19 tracker or the LGU’s incapability to do real-time data updates. But the discrepancies for same-day updates were far too high, and they weren’t just an issue of time difference between updates. Take the case of Marikina: both confirmed and recovered cases were higher on DOH’s COVID-19 tracker, while death cases were way higher in the LGU’s reported data.

We are more than data, but…

If the national government and LGUs base their decisions on these datasets, then we have a problem. We have two different realities here. And we can think that these datasets don’t matter because we’re in a pandemic, but that’s not true.

These datasets aren’t just numbers; these are people. If we’re not able to track and monitor cases properly, then we fail to protect both our patients and people in quarantine. We also fail to protect our frontliners, who at this point constitute 16.79% of the total confirmed cases in the country.

If we’re not able to report reliable and synchronized data from LGUs to the national government, we are blind during this indefinite quarantine. We will fail to address the severity of this situation. And these days, when most of us are in quarantine and online, we turn to the daily COVID updates to see how the country is doing, and it would really help if we are provided with properly processed and insightful data. But we can’t even get them to tally in the first place. (READ: [OPINION] An open letter to DOH’s communications team)

Look at these updates. Do they help us gain usable insights? Or do they just instill fear? Datasets, when not contextualized, processed properly, and presented appropriately, are useless.

I compel the DOH to release a working definition of terms, and work on a proper and standardized data reporting format that LGUs can use. We can change the categories, like we did from PUMs and PUIs to probable and suspected.

As long as the DOH continues to do a sloppy work, nothing will change.

Risk communication

The more unreliable datasets become, the harder it is for different parties to come together, because their realities are different. 

If we can’t get the datasets right, how can we properly craft messages that do not instill fear in communities? This pandemic is difficult enough to address, but the way we use this faulty data to communicate our situation makes it even more difficult. We must not fear, because if we are overcome by fear, we’ll fail to understand. 

If we can’t get the datasets right, how do we know what steps to take a day or two from now? Who are the most vulnerable groups at this point? Men? Women? Children? Elderly? Where do transmissions happen most? The best that this administration can do to communicate risk is to put its people at greater risk. – Rappler.com 

Heidi D. Mendoza advocates for WEARENOTDATA and currently works in an environmental NGO.

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