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Open Data Being Used to Help Track COVID-19 in Scotland

David Paul

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COVID-19

Using open data curated by Code the City CEO Ian Watt, multiple applications now track cases across the country using up-to-date government data.

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise in Scotland, keeping track of the spread in different parts of the country is becoming more and more difficult.

While the media does a good job of keeping us informed, the numbers of cases and deaths you will see in their stats will likely be out of date by the time you view them.

The most up-to-date statistics in Scotland come as a daily snapshot on the Scottish Government’s static webpage. Even so, this information can be hard to access for the general public, and many citizens may prefer a more visual representation of the information. Similarly, the speed at which data is circulated is also a crucial factor here, largely due to the rapidly changing situation and rate of infection.

Ian Watt, CEO at civic hacking initiative Code the City, has for the last three weeks been collating the data, using the stats from the Scottish Government’s website. He has been making it openly available for anyone to build visualisations which show the increase of infections in each area of the country. So far he has identified seven people or organisations using the data he gathers daily, including from the Ferret and an Epidemiologist at Edinburgh University. The latter is also using the data to compare Scotland’s cases with other countries.

“People are trying to make sense of what is going on around them and the demands for up-to-date, even up-to-the-minute, information is as never before,” Watt explains. “I was looking for COVID-19 open data for Scotland on which people could build their own analysis, visualisations, models and could find no source of that.”

The Scottish Government’s data is updated at 2pm daily, deleting all the previous data and removing it from the site. This makes it difficult for members of the public to know how cases are changing day-by-day, Watt suggests.

“What I have done fills the gap until the Scottish Government start to publish their own open data on COVID-19,” he adds.

In a situation like the coronavirus pandemic, it is vital that the public trust their government and that the data they provide is as transparent and accessible as possible. Currently, the Government’s site offers the numbers of tests, cases and fatalities, and a break down of case numbers in each area of Scotland. Watt would like to change that.

“In a perfect world we would have data at a regional, or even more granular level, and cover not just broad-brush numbers of positive and negative tests and deaths. It would have more-localised data, breakdowns by gender and age bands. It would cover numbers of ITU patients, numbers of people recovered, the number of test kits we have, staffing, ventilators etc,” Watt says.

In Scotland, 23,143 people had been tested for the virus, of which 19,437 tested negative and 3,706 tested positive. Of the positive cases, 220 have sadly died, and this changes often.

Scotland has a much lower number than England, which is seeing a sharp rise in new cases and fatalities. Public Health England has its own set of statistics, but it is important that data is collected at a regional level as well to remain as open and transparent as possible.

It is also crucial, Watt notes, that the data that exists is open in this way so that tools can be built to combat the spread and visualisations and accessible means of interacting with it for the general public can be developed.

“By publishing data openly, we acknowledge that others may be able to add to what we can do with it. Also, publishing data openly fosters trust with the public – a citizen can look at the data if they like, rather than have it filtered through a news outlet, for example,” Watt says.

“It also means that data scientists, immunologists, epidemiologists and public health practitioners can apply their own skills to analysing it.”

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The Scottish Government defines itself as an ‘open government’, meaning that it attempts to remain as open and transparent with information as possible. A spokesperson for the Government said: “Open governments do not just enable citizens to see what decisions are made, they support us to take part in shaping them and provide us with the information we need to examine and question their choices.

“An open government is one that shares information, empowers people to hold their actions to account and supports people to take part in the decisions over public policies and services that affect them.”

Watt commented: “The Scottish Government have recently created an Open Government Partnership for Scotland with civic society. I now lead for the civic side on Commitment Three, which is primarily about open data. Our aim is to push to an ‘Open by Default’ model, such as was recently adopted by Northern Ireland.

“Publishing open data, in addition to fostering transparency, also has proven economic and social benefits.”

Watt makes a suggestion to the Scottish Government in light of the data provided on the site: “Put in place a better set of published data, which is made available in as simple and as timely a fashion as can be accomplished under the present circumstances. Give us the data and the data community will crowd-source some useful tools built on it.

“There is a large and growing community there, composed of open data practitioners, enthusiasts and consumers, across many disciplines, who can help and are willing to support the government’s work in this area.”

David Paul

Staff Writer, DIGIT

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