Massachusetts goes all-in on sharing COVID-19 data

As someone who follows regularly COVID-19 developments in Massachusetts State, the URL to the daily Massachusetts report was a regular suspect to my Chrome browser.

So when I decided to check on the daily numbers last night, I didn’t have to search for the report online. I just clicked in the address bar of my browser where the April 19th report was already loaded, changed the number 19 to 20, and hit ENTER expecting to see the latest one.

And, oh, horror. The report wasn’t there.

Instead, I got the dreaded 404 page-not-found response:

What happened?

It was already 8pm EST — why wasn’t the report available? Was there a breakdown in the data gathering or processing? Was the data so bad that they couldn’t publish it and needed to double-check? What could have possibly gone wrong?

I changed the URL back to 19 and surely the report for April 19 appeared.

After another minute of confusion I decided to get to the report through the links from the official site — mass.gov.

Luckily, I found it where I expected to find it — on page COVID-19 Response Reporting:

What a relief. I would be able to get the data I had gotten so used to over the past weeks. New and aggregate cases, tests and deaths. Distributions by sex, age, and county. A pretty basic report, with much to be desired, but at least it was there.

As I clicked on the link and the report opened, I breathed another sigh of relief — the report loaded. The format was slightly different, so perhaps that’s they changed the URL format as part of the same update. No big deal, the data surely would be there. I started scrolling down.

And that’s when it hit me.

Instead of the old report with the most basic of data, this new report was a treasure trove of information.

The new report included everything from the old report, and then some. And then some more. And then, for extra credit, way, way more.

Without going through every detail — it’s a 23-page PDF deck of dense slides, tables, charts, and numbers — these are the new major data sets I noticed:

Here are just a few screenshots:

Page 2 — summary of cumulative and new cases and deaths.

Page 8 — absolute and per-capita confirmed cases.

Page 15 — patients by hospital and county, and by regular versus ICU bed.

Page 22 — PPE distribution by Recipient, including gloves, gowns, and masks. Number of N95 and KN95 masks. Really? O. M. G.

The availability of masks — and especially the N95 respirator and its Chinese equivalent, the KN95, and the lack thereof — had been such a topic of conversation, publications, and controversy of late, that the authors decided that this is information worth including. Just wonderful.

I am not aware of who and how decided what data to include. But it seems that the thinking has been to err on the side of including more, rather than less. “What questions do we get asked frequently? Include the answers. What data do we find valuable? Include that too. What data should people be asking for, but are not asking for, yet? Throw it in, for good measure.”

In any case, kudos to the public officials who decided to switch to sharing so much more new data. Sharing data is the hallmark of a civilized society. It allows citizens to hold their governments accountable. But it also allows citizens to help their governments — by having knowledge of the issues and magnitude and by enabling all members of society to think independently and come up with creative solutions that may not be reached by a limited number of public officials working in stressful conditions.

I expect that in the coming weeks and months some of these reports may show data that will bring uncomfortable questions for those who publish the reports. We should consider those uncomfortable questions as features, rather than bugs — a victory which benefits both Massachusetts officials and the general public. Through increased visibility we can all work towards solutions in ways consistent with the core values of our society — accountability of our government to the public and open and trusted communication.

That is all for the future, though. For now, however, given this huge leap in the right direction, I can only say one thing: Well done, Massachusetts!!!

Software engineer, investor, opinion(ated) writer.