Being FAIR During a Pandemic

As SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, went viral in the traditional sense, data on COVID-19 went viral virtually. Soon after the virus swept across the planet, COVID dashboards for cities, counties, and countries began popping up on the Internet.

Data on demographics, testing, and hospitalizations soon joined data about the number of cases and deaths. A number of websites offered competing stylized visualizations of the same data, becoming more innovative and informative as audience interest grew. Some credible, top-ranked sites allowed users to download their raw data, allowing folks to develop their own charts, graphics, and analyses to inform active research on the virus.

The opening up of COVID case information as the world was shutting down demonstrates the power and utility of open data. Instead of leaving data to twiddle its thumbs behind a firewall or, worse, in a file cabinet, public data are accessible to anyone for use.

In the open-data subculture, we talk about quantitative information being FAIR: Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Re-usable. COVID data has been, for the most part, FAIR.

COVID data are easily Findable for anyone in the world who has access to the Internet.

COVID data are also Accessible: not only can I find it, but I can often access the source data and download it.

COVID data are Interoperable, although not in the ideal sense. Uniform reporting and posting standards don't globally exist for COVID data, but the information is published online and available for scraping by savvy programmers.

Finally, COVID data are Re-usable: a county may collect data to assess the local status of the outbreak, but people can easily reuse those data to determine what's happening at the state, national, and global levels.

Real-time open data have been critical in responding to the pandemic, facilitating scientific studies, and informing policy decisions. Openness, a hallmark of democracy, has facilitated reviews of governmental actions and scientific conclusions. Sure, open data may be public, including the incompetent and nefarious, but because the data are open, bogus findings are easily refuted and corrected. Open data do not mean good data, but crowdsourcing data helps to reveal errors and improve the information over time.

For those of us fortunate to be able to work from home, open data in our specialties have allowed us to do our jobs remotely. In my space (water), much of the data I need is online at the Texas Water Development Board, a longtime leader in online water data. And the Water Development Board, with inspiration and support from the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation as well as critical support from the Texas Legislature, is working hard to make water data as open as possible.

Open water data will allow Texans and policymakers to make informed decisions for themselves and their towns, cities, counties, and state during droughts and floods.

As a science nerd and data geek, I have found open data on COVID-19 oddly comforting. Perhaps psychologically, I've convinced myself that I'm somehow gaining control over the uncontrollable when I update my database and charts every evening.

But having access to this information has allowed me to make informed personal and professional decisions and help my friends and family better understand what's happening. I've also been able to play a small part in improving the data and its understanding (yes, I have contacted data hosts about errors and analysis).

At the end of the day, FAIR data are better data. Everyone should be open to that.

Robert E. Mace is the executive director of The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment and professor of practice in the geography department, Texas State University, where he leads efforts to better understand water and the environment. Robert has a B.S in geophysics, an M.S. in hydrology from the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, and a Ph.D. in hydrogeology from The University of Texas at Austin. Robert lives with his wife and six cats in Austin and has been virtual DJing every Friday night since the COVID-19 crisis.

Editor's note: The views expressed by contributors to the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation's blogging initiative are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the foundation. The foundation works as an engine of change in both policy and practice, supporting high-impact projects at the nexus of environmental protection, social equity, and economic vibrancy. Follow the Mitchell Foundation on Facebook and Twitter, and sign up for regular updates from the foundation. 

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