Same Data, Different Vibe
I spent this weekend preparing for my first big get-together in a COVID world. This event was not actually very big, just a few people whom I trust when they say they haven’t been in contact with the outside world in the last two weeks. But we spent time together outdoors and we definitely were not 6 feet apart at all times. And there was a bouncy house.
I’m not self-isolating myself or my family after this event. I will continue doing what I do, which involves occasional grocery store runs (with a mask), daily trail runs (without a mask), and the largely normal continuation of my fairly isolated life.
I work from home, which means I can basically do this forever. But something about it grates on me. It was enormously healing to see my friends again, to talk outside of a Zoom call. It feels like the dam of isolation is breaking.
Or maybe I’m slowly losing my mind.
In this issue:
Florida’s Backup Dashboard
Disney Shorts: The Goddess of Spring
Florida’s Backup Dashboard
Some weeks ago, the big news-of-the-moment was when the architect of Florida’s (amazing) COVID dashboard was fired. There was a lot of chatter around it and it resulted in a post that I’m quite proud of since I was so close to the source of the controversy.
This is a weird controversy for me because of how the sides have sorted. Some think that Rebekah Jones is a hero exposing government corruption. Others think she is a dishonest opportunist and partisan saboteur. I (still!) think she is a human in a very harsh place at the center of a key moment of partisan insanity.
After several weeks and a couple hundred grand into a GoFundMe, Ms. Jones has her own dashboard up for Florida’s COVID situation. And, while I’m exhausted talking about Florida data (there are other states in the country, people!), I’m not yet exhausted talking about people and how people manage data.
Warning: I find this fascinating, but this is also totally my jam. I will try *very* hard to fill in gaps for the non-technical among us, but I might skip some stuff. I apologize in advance. This is like a car nerd geeking out about a race car engine while I ask “Do the hub caps actually do anything?” We all live in different worlds and I would like to humbly invite you into mine.
pictured: the alternative Florida COVID dashboard
OK, let’s start with the core technology. Ms. Jones is using arcgis for her dashboard. This is the same software that the official Florida dashboard uses. ArcGIS is a mature geolocation and mapping software product. They do superb dashboards when you need to map things on a country, state, county, or even zip code level. A lot of that stuff is baked into the software.
That’s the presentation layer, the part that you see when you go to the dashboard website. Underneath that, we have a data layer. Every time you visit the dashboard, the software goes somewhere to get the data. This is the core of the dashboard… where does it go to get the data?
This is the thing I think a lot of people don’t “get”. Ms Jones’ dashboard is pulling data from the exact same place as the official Florida dashboard. All data comes from somewhere and Ms. Jones doesn’t have some secret mystical magical data source that is more true than the official Florida website. She’s pulling the exact same data from the exact same source as the official Florida dashboard. She’s just arranging it slightly differently.
Example: The official Florida dashboard says (as of June 22nd) that Florida has 100,217 cases, while Ms. Jones’ dashboard says there are 108,697. That’s a difference of 8,480 cases. So is Florida under counting their COVID cases?
pictured: The official Florida dashboard, and I’m so tired of talking about Florida
The answer (I’m so sorry!) is that it is complicated. The simple answer is “no”. There are two kinds of tests to determine a COVID infection. The first is a RT-PCR test (reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction) and that tells you if you are currently infected with COVID. For emphasis: This is the test that most states are reporting. This test indicates an active infection.
The other test is a serology test, also known as an antibody test. This is a test to see if you had COVID in the past but are no longer infected. In Florida, there are 8,599 positive antibody tests, which mean they’ve found 8,599 people who had COVID but are no longer infected because they have produced enough antibodies to fight off the virus.
Ms. Jones’ dashboard combines the RT-PCR testing with the antibody testing in order to deliver a number that says “here is how many people have had COVID in our state”. This makes sense, I suppose.
Except that no other state does this. By combining disparate data sets, Ms Jones has muddied the waters around what the “true” number of detected infections. Her dashboard turns Florida into an orange that can’t be compared against the other 49 apples in the United States.
Maybe her method is the best one. That is entirely possible and a debate for another time. But it is out of line with reporting for the rest of the country.
There are other good things about Ms. Jones dashboard. She gives us more information about hospital status, unemployment information, testing stations. I want to be as clear as possible: This is a good dashboard! This is a lot of super-valuable information and if you’re following Florida data, you should add this to your daily list of sites to check. It will give you more raw information that you won’t get from the official Florida dashboard.
If you’ve seen the stories of Florida hiding data, then you need to realize that those stories are nonsense. If Florida was hiding data, Ms Jones’ dashboard would be worthless. She is pulling from the same formal official Florida data sources as the official Florida COVID dashboard. She’s just arranging the data differently.
I have to confess: I like Rebekah Jones. She’s incredibly smart and talented. She’s a good developer and absolutely top-notch at creating ArcGIS dashboards, which is not a trivial skill.
But. She is not an epidemiologist. When she worked for the Florida Department of Health, she really strained against the researchers and public health professionals who had final say in her work. That was part of the reason for the friction in that group that led to her dismissal.
She now has access to all the data that she had access to when she worked for them. Why? Why has the Florida Department of Health not turned off access to this data that they are supposedly hiding?
Because they don’t want to. Because they’re not actually hiding anything. The official Florida dashboard is the public health official approved version of the raw data coming in. Ms. Jones’ dashboard is a version of the same data but unbound by the oversight of Florida’s infectious disease experts.
They could blacklist her dashboard if they wanted to. They could hamstring her work, utterly cut her off from all their data. They have not. Because ultimately everyone agrees that the data is accurate. It’s just a question of presentation.
Disney Shorts: The Goddess of Spring
Clearly the Disney studio has hit its stride. This is a beautifully animated piece in which the lord of the underworld steals of the goddess of spring and drags her down into the bowels of Hades.
It is delightfully horrifying! It begins with flowers and elves dancing for the young goddess of spring. It’s cute, and very much in line with the cutesy richly colored Silly Symphonies that were increasingly popular at the time.
Then ground explodes and the Lord of Hades bursts from the ground to steal her away to Hades! And it’s a pretty intense version of Hades, with a chorus of evil little devil creatures and the fire and brimstone and everything. It’s pretty intense.
The music in this piece is very good and we can see Disney really pushing to make this a piece of high art. The dialogue is sung in an operatic style and there is a very intentional mythic quality to the short.
This short is version of the myth of Persephone and it’s clearly Disney’s attempt to up the ante in recreating classic stories in the early days of cinema. This isn’t a “simple folk tale” like the Three Little Pigs or the Wise Old Hen, this is a callback to a richer and more classic myth.
Disney is trying out a less folksy and more high brow form of storytelling here. He’s also helping his animators practice with more realistic human forms of animation (which will blossom into Snow White in a few short years). This is one of the early hints that animation could be a high-brow art form.
This is one of the reason I’m fascinated by Walt Disney. He clearly had deep sympathies with the "salt of the earth”, the working man, slap-stick and crass vaudeville comedy. But he also wanted to bring high art to everyone; he loved opera and orchestral music and the richness of classic narratives. He lived very comfortably in both these worlds and had enormous influence at just the perfect moment of film history where they very language of film was being defined and discovered.