FIRST PERSONThe Power of Data Journalism: Dissecting COVID Numbers in the Philippines
Guido is a the head of ABS-CBN data analytics.
WE’RE NOW living in the post-truth era where facts no longer shape public opinion like they used to. And in a global catastrophe that has claimed the lives of more than five million, ignoring unbiased and accurate data can prove to be problematic — even fatal.
This is why since the pandemic began in March 2020, data journalism has rapidly risen to prominence.
On my end, I monitored, gathered, and analyzed data daily to keep track of trends. I kept an eye on geographical hotspots to stay ahead of the curve in the event of outbreaks. I also looked at various indicators to give a comprehensive story of the COVID-19 situation.
While the tasks on hand were demanding and taxing, I powered through knowing that these numbers represent actual human lives.
However, it’s been 20 months since the pandemic began and even as someone who loves numbers, I understand why Filipinos may either be fatigued or overwhelmed. Cognizant of this reality, I try my best to humanize the data. For instance, when daily cases reached 15,000, people had a clearer picture of the magnitude when we likened this to the seating capacity of a jam-packed stadium. I think readers can relate better when comparisons like these are drawn. Having a regional breakdown also helps because the analysis is more local. This also has implications on the government response, especially if the higher number of cases is reported in areas outside Metro Manila, where the health system is less equipped to handle a surge.
Still, data, for some, is hard to trust. A recurring question posed to me is: How accurate are the numbers reported by the Department of Health (DOH)?
There are data limitations because not all health facilities and disease reporting units are able to report in a timely and accurate manner. The daily number of tests remains low, resulting in cases that are underreported. DOH also doesn’t include positive results from antigen tests. All these factors mean that we must remain cautious in jumping to conclusions. In reporting the daily number of cases, tests, positivity rate and the laboratory submissions must also be included so that the audience can see the complete picture.
In our analysis, we also note that cases are relatively lower on Tuesdays and Wednesdays because these reflect the fewer tests conducted over the weekend. It’s also imperative to analyze using weekly averages to clarify daily variations in the data. If the COVID situation is improving across different indicators through time, then that gives a better assessment of the situation.
In addition to these limitations, media should also be wary of how the government and other institutions interpret the data. Journalists should not merely echo these pronouncements.
On May 22, 2020, while there were officially more than 13,000 confirmed cases, my analysis showed that there were actually more than 19,000 individuals who tested positive for COVID-19. This was equivalent to a backlog of around 6,000 cases, a significant number considering that these were already RT-PCR positives and the health department only confirmed 13,000. This did not even include those who were not tested.
ABS-CBN ran a story on this and the DOH attributed the backlog to issues in its case validation process. Exactly one week after, on May 29, cases suddenly spiked to over 1,000 — two times higher than the previous record high of over 500 at that time. DOH explained that it was because of the clearing of backlogs, the same issue we raised the week before. This also resulted in the separate reporting of “fresh” and “late” cases. We received a lot of good feedback saying that it was great that this insight came from the media and not from other groups.
In light of these daily data-driven stories on COVID-19, people have also started to have a better appreciation of numbers and become more comfortable in dealing with them. Eventually, they started to become critical as well. Whenever the number of cases declined, there is awareness that Filipinos should not be complacent with the numbers we’re seeing because testing also went down. This gave me a sense of fulfillment knowing that my work enabled people not to take government statistics at face value, but rather look at other indicators as well. The goal is to eventually maintain the same critical mindset in interpreting numbers even beyond the pandemic.
The analysis and forecasting of COVID-19 by ABS-CBN is something I am proud of. We have also verified government numbers many times during this pandemic, including reports on testing and vaccination where we provided further context while maintaining our level of accuracy at all times. That is the power of data journalism.
The digital revolution has unleashed a deluge of information, quite a bit of which is difficult to understand. The gatekeeping function of newsrooms, deciding what news the public should receive is fraught with responsibility, as journalists must also acquire special skills. The challenge confronting the news media is to level up to the task. It is no longer about what is of wide interest or what is official. The role of the media is to sift through the noise and highlight what is accurate and credible, informing people about what they need to know.
Good solid information can take different forms. Visualization of data can tell the story with fewer words.
Journalists need to keep learning as the world of information and news changes. But the basic need remains the same; journalists are verifiers of truth, first and last.