The UP COVID-19 Response Team issued a Policy Note dated 08 May 2020 that raised important issues, including “alarming errors”, in the Department of Health’s (DOH) COVID-19 Tracker and Data Drops. While Action for Economic Reforms (AER) agrees to the issues raised in the Policy Note, and calls for their resolution, we would like to offer a different assessment of the matter.
There are two sets of issues implied in the UP experts’ note. One has to do with the technical aspect of data standards, the other, with the broader political issue of transparency.
The first set of issues covers different activities that ensure the interoperability of data, that is, making data usable and readable by different systems. The format for dates, the coding for geographical locations, how names are inputted (e.g. last name first, full middle name or middle initial only), and the like, matter in how programs and machines read data. Aside from having the protocols for these, the actual data collection and recording are important, so data collectors and encoders have to be properly trained.
We disagree with the UP Team about the characterization of the errors which fall within this set as “alarming”. While it is imperative that they be addressed, they are more inconvenient than they are fatal.
As advocates and researchers, we know the limits of accessible datasets. We have to do data scrubbing and cleaning, and that’s par for the course. The changes cited in the Policy Note (specifically for the April 24 and 25 data entries) are part of necessary corrections. If there are mistakes, it is but proper for DOH to correct them. We note that DOH provides a technical note explaining the corrections done in their daily data drops, as well as an alert to always refer to the latest release. However, these technical notes and alerts were not mentioned in the Policy Note.
For data analysts, it is frustrating but ultimately still beneficial to update datasets for corrections to be made. Changes can disrupt analysis that can in turn delay policymaking. Weaknesses in the data (from collection to encoding) need to be addressed, but we also emphasize that correcting mistakes is part of this process.
On the matter of transparency, DOH has done well. The Right to Know, Right Now! Coalition, a network of organizations and leaders pushing for the passage of the Freedom of Information bill and its practice, noted that DOH is consistent in releasing data and information through different platforms, and giving updates more than once daily. It further lauded the agency for “incorporating inputs from different sectors”. There may be relative inexperience with data collection and handling at the scale and speed COVID-19 requires, but DOH has so far outperformed other government agencies. It corrects mistakes in its datasets, and that’s transparency, too.
Rather than nitpick on the things that are already being addressed, we would like to highlight information requests that we still have for DOH: what picture the results of contact tracing present, and indicators of local government capacity to respond to the health crisis. Likewise, we reiterate our call for the relaxation of non-disclosure agreements and the expansion of anonymized data points included in the DOH data drop.
We welcome that the DOH works with civil society and private groups, not just with government entities. This helps socialize DOH, and other agencies, to be open to data sharing, and strengthen openness to the public.
Finally, there seems to be cooperation issues between DOH and other entities like UP, and we hope that as public institutions they are able to resolve these soon. In critical times like this, it is important for public agencies to join forces rather than sow discord. Ultimately, we hope that such cooperation will pave the way for more openness in government.