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A story of data, dashboards and definitions.

This post is about vaccination data and dashboards:
– about good visualizations and the pitfalls to avoid,
– about what to keep in mind when reading such data,
– and about the transparency we deserve from our governments.

On the 27th December 2020, the European vaccination campaign started. We saw the light at the end of the tunnel, sooner than expected: not one, but more vaccines developed in less than one year ! Enough of a reason to go out on the balconies to clap and sing. Yet, in this second wave, nobody sang on the balcony. The mood, here in Europe, is gloomy. People complain. Politicians complain. Media complain.

But hey! Despite all hurdles, the vaccination campaign is on, with progress AND delays. Good results and faults: people need to see both and understand what it happening. Data storytelling and data literacy – the two sides of the pandemic communication coin – have never been so important. Almost one year ago, in March 2020, I celebrated data visualizations as a tool to save lives.

So is it today with vaccination data: providing Europeans with clear, transparent information is the best way to motivate all of us to do our duty as members of our community: resist, stay safe and get the vaccine.

This post is about vaccination data and dashboards:

  • about good visualizations and the pitfalls to avoid,
  • about what to keep in mind when reading such data,
  • and about the transparency we deserve from our governments.

In this post, I put together some charts and dashboards – linking to the sources – and add some considerations on how we currently treat, read and misread the data. Please consider that most governments produce detailed reports and machine-readable datasets today: they are doing a much better job than one year ago to make those data available. Some countries have not yet developed vaccination dashboards, or they went online with a version 1.0 – e.g. France, Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria – but there is nothing weird about that. We are still at the beginning of the vaccination campaign.

The COVID-19 vaccination: a competition among continents, Countries and regions?

When the first data appeared beginning of January, most media did what we would have done all, if required to present data: bar charts! They displayed the vaccination campaign data like a race among continents, countries, regions and districts.

Handle data with care. All rankings can mislead.

Most charts display total number doses and doses administered by 100 people (the reference source for that global comparison is Our World in Data).

What’s the problem with such visualization? Seen alone, it is misleading:

  • It does not consider when vaccinations started.
  • Every country has a different vaccination strategy: depending on the population group you start with, the campaign speed can differ.
  • Different can be the local strategy on how many doses to administer and how many to “keep in storage”. That is relevant, especially in Europe, where we need to cope with some shortage until the 2nd Quarter 2021.
  • Finally, the demographics: the age groups and their geographic distribution (cities, villages) impact how every country reaches them. We should remove all people with less than 16 years from the total population considered, as they cannot receive the shot.

That’s why, before engaging (and wasting time) on Twitter debating about who does better/worse, who comes first/second/last, please consider an additional set of charts and datasets. For instance…

Vaccination strategy: who got vaccinated first?

A chart does not replace a detailed description of the vaccination strategy, but it gives you an idea of priorities impacting the local execution.

Ideally, such a map should be complemented by a detailed update on the progress made vaccinating each group as defined by your local strategy. In this table from Germany (data source: RKI, Robert Koch Institut), you find a recap of the categories vaccinated so far, belonging to the top priority group set in the German strategy (Gruppe 1).

Good to see that it distinguishes between who got the first shot and who is fully vaccinated (i.e. got two doses):

  • Geimpfte = people who got at least one dose.
  • Voller Impfschutz = people fully vaccinated (two doses).

Remember that priorities matter. That is why a well documented, easy to access, written black on white (but not necessarily on stone) vaccination strategy is crucial: it must be clear and driven by rationales (medical, ethical, logistical) you can understand AND able to criticise, as of your right.

With this vaccination campaign, the first of its kind in human history for its massive size, the rationale behind the plan are more important than daily data.

Drilling down in geography.

If you are used to choropleth maps for monitoring the COVID-19 cases, it makes lots of sense to monitor also vaccinations with geographic data maps like these:

However, that has not so much to do with comparing local efficiency (it should not). Such maps will be more relevant later, mid-2021, to watch if vaccinations will slow down infections in the regions where more people are vaccinated.

The public sources: government dashboards. Design, transparency and honest communication.

Most of us access vaccination data published in newspapers or shared with social media. Most of us have never accessed government websites very frequently unless we were journalists or communication professionals or public servants.

The pandemic is changing our behaviour, and that is good news: so many people like never are visiting government websites for pure information purpose. Now it is the time for governments to show they can deliver easy-to-read, transparent, open (machine-readable) data to everybody, with good dashboard design.

What shall a public vaccination dashboard display? 

1 - NICE TO HAVE A simple indicator to answer the question “where do we stand now?”

Something simple that matches actual data with planned milestones and targets. Plus, if milestones and targets change over time, a note showing the change.In Spain, this is the first information visitors see before getting to the FAQs and the numbers.

2 - MANDATORY Clarify who received the first doses vs who has been fully vaccinated.

How many people received at least one dose, and how many people have completed the vaccination with two doses within the 28 days timeframe. There cannot be room for ambiguity here. You cannot play with words and labels pretending that people receiving the first shot are already "vaccinated".

The UK dashboard does this information job gracefully: simple, easy to read, interactive.

What do I mean, when I talk about "ambiguity"? Until the 18th January, the Italian dashboard used to call all shots as “vaccinations”. They updated their dashboard on the 19th January to display separately the total doses administered vs. the vaccinations completed.

Italian Government Vaccination Dashboard

The German dashboard is more descriptive: the basic data are provided within a text context that introduces the dashboard.

3 - IMPORTANT Who got the shot? Which groups are receiving the vaccine, and how is the progress for each priority group?

This information is not for pure statistics. Depending on how each group proceeds, you test how your country vaccination strategy is working. It is also a matter of transparency and acceptance: each of us, waiting in the queue, has the right to see who comes first, who comes second. The German Impfdashboard provides a detailed breakdown of

  • Doses administered to each priority group.
  • How much percentage they account on the total of administered doses.
  • A link to the priority strategy to explain who belongs to each prioritized category.

The Italian dashboard provides a similar breakdown, but with no access to a detailed explanation of the categories. That is an issue now when several media reported that around 400.000 people got their shot done without being fully entitled. A dashboard shall provide links to definitions and explanations that do not give room for arbitrary interpretation.

On the Italian dashboard, a second chart provides a breakdown by age group:

4 - NOT SO RELEVANT Pfizer-BionTech, Moderna & Co. what from which company?

Is this information relevant? In an ideal scenario of abundant vaccines available, probably not. Once a vaccine is approved, who cares about what brand you are vaccinated with? Yet, the current stage in Europe - with lack of vaccines and lots of controversy - requires an "overdose" of transparency. Some countries have therefore included in their citizen dashboards two types of information:

  • How much vaccine the Country has secured from which provider: see Spain.
  • How many doses reached the point of distributions vs how many have been administered.

A good rule of thumb is to preserve at least 30% of delivered doses for later (safety buffer). In the German Land Nordrhein-Westfalen, the safety rule of 50% has been applied so far. The Italian Government dashboard provides this detail, too:

  • How many doses by Vendor (Pfizer-Biontech, Moderna, etc) have been administered.

Honestly, I think this information is relevant for a government dashboard. It makes more sense to leave it where it belongs: digital reports and datasets to download, as the Denmark Vaccination report does:

Conclusion: we and the vaccination data.

A couple of things you should stop doing, both as a citizen, as a journalist or as a public communicator:

  • STOP Using data for the political debate!
  • STOP Commenting data on Twitter without digging deeper into them before making your opinion.
  • STOP Obsessing over daily data: it is too early for that. Keep calm and monitor it week by week.
  • STOP Comparing countries like it was a race: it is not. 

Vaccination is not a race and for sure not a 200 meter one. It is more like a trail-running ultra race, long and with lots of hurdles: rocks, steep paths, changing weather.

There will be still weeks of stop-and-go, but we will see progress by the second quarter 2021. Before that, avoid the journalistic hysteria on reporting day-to-day data for the sake of pointing fingers here and there. Be quiet, stay patient, and learn from these data.

Data sources: