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While The COVID Tracking Project (CTP) will soon come to a close, we’ve had an outsized impact in our more than year of existence. For much of the project, we were laser-focused on gathering and analyzing the data, and we didn’t realize the full extent of our reach. It wasn’t until we began to wind down the project and end our data collection that we began to examine where and how our data was being used, and we were delighted by what we found.

Our largely volunteer-run effort became a definitive and trustworthy source for US COVID-19 data and analysis: for media, scientists and medical professionals, academics, and the government. Bloomberg described the project as “a demonstration of citizen know-how and civic dedication at a time when the country feels like it’s being pulled apart.” 

We became a major media source for coronavirus data, used by U.S. and international outlets across the political spectrum with more than 7,700 press mentions. Our data was used by other aggregation efforts, including the Johns Hopkins University global coronavirus map, Our World in Data, and the Financial Times. We also responded to thousands of media and citizen requests for information on COVID-19 data.

Researchers relied on our data to study the pandemic: CTP has been cited in more than 1,000 papers, including major medical journals like The New England Journal of Medicine, Nature, JAMA, The Lancet, and Science. This research covers a wide range of issues including COVID-19 case counts; morbidity and mortality; testing disparities and scaling testing; the effectiveness of stay at home orders, social distancing and mask wearing; racial disparities in infection rates; projection modeling; air pollution exposure and infection rates; and outcomes based on state policies

Last spring, the White House used our testing data in a strategy document. The CDC itself published a report stating that our racial data might be more accurate and complete than that of the federal government. In December, the CDC’s vaccine advisory council used our long-term care data in presenting evidence of who should be included in phase 1A of the vaccine roll-out, and it used our data again this year in its recommendations for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine roll-out. Dr. Tom Frieden, a former CDC director and public health expert, featured our data in a thread that said CTP’s work remained “invaluable” even as the federal government data has improved. Dr. Deborah Birx called CTP “superb” and said all Americans should be following our work. 

The Biden transition team had to rely on CTP data, and the new administration used CTP data in its day 1 COVID-19 response plan. One of the administration’s first White House briefings with public health officials included a slide citing CTP’s race data. CTP, along with many other COVID-19 data advocates, pushed for the release of White House Task Force reports previously shared only with state officials. The Biden administration began to release these reports in January.

We’ve been cited by the CDC, the FDA, FEMA, the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense, and numerous other federal agencies. An October report from the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation on COVID-19 racial disparities cited CTP data multiple times and noted: “The volunteer-based COVID Tracking Project has created the most comprehensive centralized resource for race and ethnicity data at the state level.” In January, the US Department of Labor’s Office of the Inspector General and the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee published a federal COVID-19 testing report which analyzed both federal data and CTP data. In March, the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General published a report on preparations to send staff back to offices, citing CTP data in their reopening considerations.

Federal lawmakers used our data in at least 11 letters demanding answers on the pandemic response from government leaders and commercial labs, as well as in their own public communications. Legislators cited us in a bill called the Improving COVID-19 Data Transparency Act, introduced in August. Rep. Adriano Espilliat mentioned CTP data during a November House of Representatives Hispanic Caucus discussion on COVID-19 disparities, and the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis links to CTP data on its coronavirus resource page—and it lists it above other government sources of data. 

CTP data is referenced in more than a dozen congressional reports. A January Government Accountability Office report on the federal COVID-19 response notes that CTP “identified inconsistencies in state reporting of COVID-19 information” and “recommended standardizing these data to improve comparability across states.” Last month, another GAO report called for a centralized federal data website, noting that the public “may be more aware of non-federal sources of data on COVID-19 indicators,” including CTP, than of federal sources. 

State and local officials also made use of our data, from including it in travel advisories to bragging about CTP’s state ratings. We were instrumental in getting state governments to be more transparent. Our work led to more than 30 changes to COVID-19 data points on state websites, ranging from correcting errors to clarifying data definitions to releasing new data. For example, Florida began reporting testing data over time following conversations with state officials. City officials used our data, too: at the beginning of the pandemic, the Los Angeles City Council passed a resolution to increase production of COVID-19 testing kits that cited CTP testing data, and the city of Miami Beach has repeatedly used our data in its emergency declarations.

We asked states to make data available publicly to everyone if they wanted it included in our datasets and negotiated extensively with them to make sure this data was comparable with other state data. We wanted states to report tests in units capturing repeat testing; initially, only 19 states did so, but now all but two states and territories report this way. We also asked that states and territories report race and ethnicity data. When we began tracking this data, half of the jurisdictions reported those numbers. Now, nearly every state does. 

Our data has even been cited in 30 pandemic-related lawsuits and legal filings. An NAACP lawsuit against the U.S. Postal Service over mail slowdowns noted our racial data, and a judge later ordered USPS to reverse its limits on mail collection and to do daily sweeps of mail facilities for absentee ballots. Six lawsuits over pandemic voting rules around the country cited our data; for example, the Arctic Village Council and the League of Women Voters sued Alaska election officials to lift the witness requirement on absentee voting—and won. A lawsuit by a coalition of states against the federal government over the proposed expulsion of international college students during the pandemic also cited CTP data. (The federal government later reversed its policy.) 

The Southern Poverty Law Center used our data in several lawsuits against ICE over incarcerating immigrants during the pandemic. A group of labor organizations sued meat companies for civil rights violations, claiming their COVID-19 policies discriminated against their workers of color; the complaint cites CTP race data. Our data was also used by the attorneys general of California and New York to respond to lawsuits over coronavirus restrictions.

We’ve also heard from people all over the country about how they’ve used our data for planning and decision-making: from the head of the U.S. Quidditch League to a church pastor, to executives working in medical care, to a European embassy official. People have told us again and again how they religiously checked our data, and found it to be an important tool in helping them make decisions for themselves, their families, and in some cases, for their jobs.

DJ Patil, the former White House chief data scientist, summed up CTP’s impact at an event in March: “You filled a gap that is essential and I fundamentally believe you and the team saved an incredible number of lives.”

We’d like to hear from you: How else has the project had impact? How have our data and analysis helped you? Please fill out the form below. Your response is confidential, and we won’t publish anything without your permission.

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Rachel Glickhouse is a New York-based journalist who works on project management and impact tracking at The COVID Tracking Project.

@Riogringa

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