Can Worldmeter and Wikipedia Replace the Who and Publish COVID-19 Data?

By: Keren Yalin-Mor

In this short paper I will argue that although information is known to be an important factor in fighting pandemics such as the novel coronavirus, international institutions failed to achieve this goal, while independent and social websites – Worldometer and Wikipedia – filled this role, at least partially. Nonetheless, it is important to create a global mechanism for collecting and publishing the relevant data.

In the past few months the world is facing one of its biggest challenges – the novel coronavirus pandemic (also known as COVID-19 and nCov-19), that has by April 21 infected over two million people all over the world and killed more than 170,000.[1] The COVID-19 pandemic is caused by a corona virus of a type that was not known before to medicine and science, and which presents great challenges in fighting it. In a nutshell, the specific virus is new to the scientific and medical communities, and therefore they lack important knowledge regarding its attributes. In addition, although the exact numbers are yet to be determined, it seems that the virus is both contagious and causes medical complications and death in relative high scales.

In the recent months scientists from diverse fields all over the world have been researching the new corona virus, trying to offer valuable observations regarding it and enhance the global fight against it. One of the most prominent spheres of research regarding coronavirus is epidemiological research. For over a century – since the outbreak of the Spanish Flu – it is known that data and information are important sources for fighting plagues.[2] In modern times, and specifically regarding the COVID-19, information has an even greater power. With the information revolution, big data analytics and globalization, researchers from all over the world can join hands in combatting the virus without even going to their labs. In addition, since this virus is new to science and has special attributes – such as relatively high reproduction rate, and allegedly a high mortality rate – information can assist scientists in shedding light over these attributes, which are crucial to taking effective measures against the pandemics in the global level, as well as in the state and regional level. Furthermore, the collection of data as well as its analysis require relatively low resources, as opposed to experiments and laboratory research, and are manageable even in social distancing and working from home.

In general, research could use as much data as will be published, but the most important statistics include number of infected, number of serious cases, number of deaths and number of tests. It is also important to collect the containment measures taken by countries, states and regions, since they have a great effect on the spread of the pandemic and therefore on the data analysis. This information should be published on a daily reliable basis, that could be analyzed in order to calculate the basic reproductive number (R0), the effective reproductive number (R), the influence of environmental and social factors on these numbers and the effect of different containment measures. This data allows comparative analysis, examining different environmental conditions and containment measure. Additionally, in an era of information, the publication of this data gives the media and the public important tools for criticizing national authorities and international bodies and their responses to the pandemic, whether being too lenient or too severe.

This data should be collected and published by the different states fighting the pandemic. However, since COVID-19 is a global pandemic attacking simultaneously almost every country in the world, it is important to have an international body that will collect national reports and allow access to the data. The first and obvious choice for such a global-international body is the World Health Organization (WHO).

However, the WHO does not fulfill this role in a satisfactory manner in several aspects. The daily reports published by the WHO[3] are updated in a few days’ delay in comparison to the states’ publications, and many times are inaccurate. Furthermore, the reports issued by the WHO are in a format which does not allow the public to observe and analyze them, since they are in a Pdf format and do not include any graphs or other visual presentation of the data. They also include only limited data for each state: total number of cases, number of new cases, total number of deaths, new deaths, transmission classification and number of days since last reported case.[4] They do not include the number of critical cases and the number of tests conducted by each state.

While the WHO argues that the delays are caused by verifying the data and relying solely on credible reports by the states, this situation does not enable proper epidemiologic understanding of the situation and its research.

This gap could have been filled by other institutions. For example, Johns Hopkins University established a resource center on coronavirus,[5] which is considered to supply important data to the public. This resource center offers a much more detailed dataset regarding COVID-19, as well as visualizations and reader-friendly analysis of the data. The resource center includes dashboard with data regarding cases and mortality in the different states in the world, and more granulated data regarding U.S. states – including hospitalization and testing.[6] In addition, it has visualized in-depth analysis of different topics such as comparative mortality rates[7] and growth rates. [8]

The data included in the Johns Hopkins resource center is indeed very user friendly, promotes public understanding of the situation and may facilitate informed analysis of the measures taken. However, a more detailed inspection shows a few fallacies. First, it lacks important data – the number of tests and number of serious cases. In addition, comparison of the data included in the database shows inaccuracies, especially in the earlier stages of the spread.[9]

Into this gap entered different non-institutionalized websites. The most prominent websites are Worldometer[10] and Wikipedia,[11], which also have social characteristics. Worldometer, as explained in its about page, “is run by an international team of developers, researchers, and volunteers with the goal of making world statistics available in a thought-provoking and time relevant format to a wide audience around the world”, and published by “a small and independent digital media company based in the United States”.[12] In the past few weeks Worldometer have been publishing detailed data regarding the coronavirus pandemics and adding new features and data categories on a regular basis.[13] Currently, the data published includes the number of total cases, new cases, total deaths, new deaths, recovered, active cases, serious/critical, cases per 1M population, deaths per 1M population, tests and tests per 1M population. Worldometer also shows also cumulative statistical data for each country. In addition, they offer graphs that visualize the data. Their data is based on official publications as well as media reports, and includes references to the sources. An important factor is that the data presented in the website is usually updated quickly, since users can report new cases in the website, and the data is validated by a “team of analysts and researchers”.[14] Due to users’ updates there are from time to time mistakes in the website, but those are corrected quickly. Comparing the data included in the website to the official Israeli data, Worldometer is updated very quickly and accurately. The wide range of information included in the website facilitates research as well as public criticism. Of the of important data types mentioned above, Worldometer only lacks data regarding the containment measures taken by countries.

In addition to Worldometer, Wikipedia also offers important data regarding the coronavirus pandemic. There are specific articles dedicated to the coronavirus pandemic in dozens of countries, states and regions, and these articles usually include statistics regarding the cases in each country and region, as well as detailed account of the containment measures taken by the countries.[15] Wikipedia of course also has a collaborative nature and is an online community.

Although the data published by Worldometer, Wikipedia and other websites is detailed and updated, it is still insufficient. First, as can be seen there is no single source that publishes all the relevant data in one place. Therefore, for researchers collecting, verifying and updating the data are timely tasks. In addition, there is no standard format for the publication of data by the states. The lack of standardization affects the published data. For example, there is no clear definition of serious cases, and therefore it is difficult to compare the data from different states. Another example is the number of tests which is not published on daily basis in every state, although this data is important in evaluating the overall accuracy of the data.

On a global level we will not be able to overcome these obstacles without global governance – by the WHO or another global organization. Collecting and publishing data regarding pandemics also fulfills the principles and functions of the WHO as articulated in its Constitution. The preamble to the Constitution states among the principles of the WHO that “[i]nformed opinion and active co-operation on the part of the public are of the utmost importance in the improvement of the health of the people.”[16] Furthermore, a few of the WHO functions are tightly related to publishing the data, especially “to provide information… in the field of health.”[17] It follows that based on the need to conduct epidemiologic research and decision making based on valid data and in line with the WHO Constitution, there should be a publication of the data by an international body. Furthermore, to achieve this task in the optimal manner, the states and global organizations should decide upon unified and binding formats for reporting and publication of data, and data should be collected, updated and published on a timely manner. With proper data we can fight COVID-19 and future epidemics.

 

[1] COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic, Worldometer, https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/ (last visited Apr. 21, 2020).

[2] John M. Barry, The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History (2005); Matthew Gould, Indra Joshi & Ming Tang, The power of data in a pandemic, Technology in the NHS (Mar. 28, 2020), https://healthtech.blog.gov.uk/2020/03/28/the-power-of-data-in-a-pandemic/ (U.K.).

[3] Coronavirus Disease (COVID-2019) Situation Reports, World Heath Organization, https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/situation-reports/ (last visited Apr. 17, 2020).

[4] See, e.g., World Health Organization, Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), Situation Report – 87 (Apr. 16, 2020), https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/situation-reports/20200416-sitrep-87-covid-19.pdf?sfvrsn=9523115a_2.

[5] Coronavirus Resource Center, Johns Hopkins University, https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/ (last visited Apr. 17, 2020).

[6] COVID-19 Dashboard by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University (JHU), Johns Hopkins University, https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html (last visited Apr. 17, 2020).

[7] Mortality Analyses, Johns Hopkins University, https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/data/mortality (last visited Apr. 17, 2020).

[8] Has the Curve Flattened?, Johns Hopkins University, https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/data/new-cases (last visited Apr. 17, 2020).

[9] Comparison between WHO, JHU and Worldometer data, on file with author.

[10] Worldometer, https://www.worldometers.info/ (last visited Apr. 17, 2020).

[11] Wikipedia, https://www.wikipedia.org/ (last visited Apr. 17, 2020).

[12] About, Worldometer, https://www.worldometers.info/about/ (last visited Apr. 17, 2020).

[13] COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic, Worldometer, https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/ (last visited Apr. 17, 2020).

[14] About, Worldometer, https://www.worldometers.info/about/ (last visited Apr. 17, 2020).

[15] The list of Wikipedia articles in English can be found in Template:2019–20 Coronavirus Pandemic, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Template:2019%E2%80%9320_coronavirus_pandemic (last visited Apr. 17, 2020).

[16] Constitution of the World Health Organization pmbl., July 22, 1946, 14 U.N.T.C. 185.

[17] Id. art. 2(q). Other relevant functions are “to promote co-operation among scientific and professional groups

which contribute to the advancement of health” (art. 2(j)), and “to promote… research in the field of health” (art. 2(n)).