10 Million Data Requests: How Our Covid Team Tracked the Pandemic

The project began 18 months ago as a simple concept: Count every known U.S. case at the time. When the virus grew exponentially, so did the efforts to document it.

By Tiff Fehr and Josh Williams

Times Insider explains who we are and what we do, and delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how our journalism comes together.

As of this morning, programs written by New York Times developers have made more than 10 million requests for Covid-19 data from websites around the world. The data we’re collecting are daily snapshots of the virus’s ebb and flow, including for every U.S. state and thousands of U.S. counties, cities and ZIP codes.

You may have seen slices of this data in the daily maps and graphics we publish at The Times. These pages combined, which have involved more than 100 journalists and engineers from across the organization, are the most-viewed collection in the history of nytimes.com and are a key component of the package of Covid reporting that won The Times the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for public service.

The Times’s coronavirus tracking project was one of several efforts that helped fill the gap in the public’s understanding of the pandemic left by the lack of a coordinated governmental response. Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center collected both domestic and international case data. And the Covid Tracking Project at The Atlantic marshaled an army of volunteers to collect U.S. state data, in addition to testing, demographics and health care facility data.

At The Times, our work began with a single spreadsheet.

In late January 2020, Monica Davey, an editor on the National desk, asked Mitch Smith, a correspondent based in Chicago, to start gathering information about every individual U.S. case of Covid-19. One row per case, meticulously reported based on public announcements and entered by hand, with details like age, location, gender and condition.

By mid-March, the virus’s explosive growth proved too much for our workflow. The spreadsheet grew so large it became unresponsive, and reporters did not have enough time to manually report and enter data from the ever-growing list of U.S. states and counties we needed to track.

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