The consequences of this testing shortage, we realized, could be cataclysmic. A few days later, we founded the COVID Tracking Project at The Atlantic with Erin Kissane, an editor, and Jeff Hammerbacher, a data scientist. Every day last spring, the project’s volunteers collected coronavirus data for every U.S. state and territory. We assumed that the government had these data, and we hoped a small amount of reporting might prod it into publishing them.
Not until early May, when the CDC published its own deeply inadequate data dashboard, did we realize the depth of its ignorance. And when the White House reproduced one of our charts, it confirmed our fears: The government was using our data. For months, the American government had no idea how many people were sick with COVID-19, how many were lying in hospitals, or how many had died. And the COVID Tracking Project at The Atlantic, started as a temporary volunteer effort, had become a de facto source of pandemic data for the United States.
Author(s): ROBINSON MEYER and ALEXIS C. MADRIGAL, THE ATLANTIC
Every day for almost a year, hundreds of COVID Tracking Project contributors from all walks of life have compiled, published, and interpreted vitally important COVID-19 data as a service to their fellow Americans. On March 7, the one-year anniversary of our founding, we will release our final daily update and our data compilation will stop. Documentation, analysis, and archival work will continue for another two months, and we will bring the project to a close in May.
That we were able to carry the data through a full year is a testament to the generosity of the foundations and firms that gave us the resources we needed, to the counsel of our advisory board, to The Atlantic’s support for our highly unusual organization, and above all to the devotion of our contributors. But the work itself—compiling, cleaning, standardizing, and making sense of COVID-19 data from 56 individual states and territories—is properly the work of federal public health agencies. Not only because these efforts are a governmental responsibility—which they are—but because federal teams have access to far more comprehensive data than we do, and can mandate compliance with at least some standards and requirements. We were able to build good working relationships with public health departments in states governed by both Republicans and Democrats, and these relationships helped bring much more data to into public view. But ultimately, the best we could hope to do with unstandardized state data was to build a bridge over the data gaps—and the good news is that we believe we can now see the other side.