When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, there was a barrage of information about the virus on numerous websites, news channels, apps and social media.
New York-based tech entrepreneur Frédéric Charlier found it hard to make sense of the information and numbers strewn across various platforms. While governments around the world were sharing details of social distancing and health guidelines on official websites, Charlier realised there wasn’t a moderated forum that encouraged healthy discourse around people’s experiences of living through a pandemic.
He saw the potential for a platform that would consolidate COVID-19 news, data, infographics, personal experiences, as well as useful conversations across the world.
But Charlier knew he couldn’t do it alone. So he reached out to a network of like-minded entrepreneurs, designers and data scientists – through Slack channels of a co-working space, online career fairs and social media posts – and eventually teamed up with six other volunteers who shared his vision. Together, they launched Covid Measures, a digital platform visualising the human impact of the global pandemic through information and experiences, that are crowdsourced or provided by academic institutions.
“We wanted to create a global picture that is a mix between data, perspective, aggregation of information and its impacts that can benefit users,” Charlier, who has a background in designing transportation systems and technology, told VICE News over a video call.
Charlier said that the platform was unique in how it structured information in terms of countries, the measures they implemented, the guidelines followed and the impact on respective societies.
The site is minimally designed in tones of white and green, and greets you with a banner that declares “Created by citizens around the world, for citizens.” The opening page provides an overview of what the website aims to do, including important impacts of COVID-19, data divided by countries, and snippets of information on important measures inculcated across the world. A comprehensive banner on the left hand side allows you to delve deeper into the website’s offerings, from learning about measures like surveillance and international travel, to reading about how citizens are dealing with government measures.
And then of course, there’s an opportunity for readers to “Add an impact” wherein visitors can input their own experiences in their countries and the policies of their respective governments.
Covid Measures seeks to ease the understanding of pandemic regulations worldwide in an interactive manner. It provides a map marking countries which require you to wear a mask, and other worldwide statistics such as the correlation between COVID-19 deaths and age. It even covers wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic, including anti authoritarian protests in Serbia, reduced traffic jams and pollution in Belgium, demands to refund tuition fees in Korea, and the increase in homeschooling in India.
While the platform is crowdsourced, Elaine Khuu, another volunteer who helped build the site, emphasised that it is different from social media.
“The site is data driven and focuses on science and facts. This is different from social media since that is more about spouting opinions,” Khuu, the site’s product designer, told VICE News. Khuu has a background in designing products for children and education. She said that she wanted to curate a platform that was driven by information, yet allowed people to speak openly in a constructive environment.
Charlier and his team are aware that their project should not contribute to the “infodemic” of misinformation. To ensure precise data on guidelines and their results, they ask for a source, often more than one, and encourage information that is closest to scientific documentation. This, before allowing it to get published on the site.
“We rely on academic and journalistic sources for data on vital statistics of public health,” said Jai Jeffryes, another volunteer, and a data scientist with a special focus on public health.
Jeffryes explained that to work their way around governments that suppress data or countries subject to censorship, Covid Measures carries out surveys to understand individual experiences. The website is currently conducting surveys on mask initiatives and international travel in more than 150 countries. “We want to be as flexible as possible and cover all sides of the narrative,” said Charlier.
Contributors are encouraged to share the source of information with the project team, but they can remain anonymous. “This creates a safe space for them to open up in a way they can’t on social media,” said Khuu.
While the platform is not social media as Khuu highlighted, Facebook and Twitter remain important elements of attracting an audience for Covid Measures. However, the platform subverts the technical limitations of social media by designing an interactive website with infographics and maps to visualise the data.
The website also hosts a moderated chat forum to encourage debates and discourse. “We take on a pro-con approach where everyone making an argument has to justify their stance with factual data. This enables the public to share inputs and experiences,” said Charlier.
Additionally, website users can access Covid Measures TV, a section which links back to the platform’s YouTube channel, which hosts videos covering topics like the worldwide government response to COVID-19.
One of the platform's unique features is its comparative analysis between COVID-19 deaths and those caused by other diseases. “Everyone is focused on casualties. We want to put the death tally in a larger context to convey that despite this crisis, there are other issues that impact the world,” said Charlier.
The team also tries to contrast data in varying contexts such as comparing the number of deaths to the number of school years lost, and the impact it has on children’s education.
“Especially in the U.S., there has been a country centric view of the pandemic. An international overview appeals to people,” said Jeffryes.
The ultimate goal, he said, is that collating information now could help social and health policy decisions in the future.
“Zoonotic diseases have proliferated in this century, and I would like to come out of this one knowing how to make better choices on a population level, and how we should advocate as citizens.”
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VICE APAC is partnering with Covid Measures to encourage more people to contribute their own experiences to the platform.