Data Dashboards in the time of COVID-19

Dashboards gather together data linked to a problem and present it in a visual format. Typically, a dashboard is a digital graphic interface that uses visualizations such as maps, charts or icons, to present statistical data in a dynamic and interactive way. Often, data in dashboards are represented in real-time, endeavoring to give an impression of the ‘state’ of the problem. 

Dashboards are proving to be an essential tool in the presentation and interpretation of the extensive amount of data on COVID-19. Most COVID-19 dashboards display the same combinations of data measurements – cases, testing, deaths and recoveries. The ‘case’ itself is a fundamental unit in these dashboards, often visualized in maps, and in the recognizable exponential curve. These dashboards give an impression of the state of COVID-19, whether locally, nationally or globally, and are key in understanding what has been labelled the ‘data-driven pandemic’. 

Some examples of COVID-19 dashboards: 

In his book The Data Gaze (2019) David Beer emphasizes the importance of data infrastructures. Certain infrastructures are required for the generation and maintenance of dashboards. These include organizational, material and virtual infrastructures. Each infrastructure contributes to the work dashboards do in “dissecting and then reimagining the data” (Beer, 2019, p. 129). 

To interpret data, infrastructures must be ‘fast’, working to analyze and display the data in as close to real-time as possible. Much of this speediness comes from being able to swiftly clean and refine raw data. Infrastructures must enable the cleaning of data, whether by an established position within an organization (i.e. it is a data analyst’s job to clean the data) or by automation. 

Infrastructures that facilitate fast and clean data analysis are particularly important for dashboards – contributing to their ability to see the ‘state’ of something in a timely digestible way. For COVID-19 dashboards, only key measurements (cases, deaths, testing) are of large importance, so dashboard infrastructure should clean and eliminate extraneous data. Infrastructures that maintain real-time data analysis, and possess the ability to adapt to new situations is also key for COVID-19 in dashboards, as this pandemic is continually evolving.

Generally speaking, dashboards make a certain way of seeing a problem possible. Today, COVID-19 dashboards play a role in the reproduction of what Michel Foucault (2007) came to call biopolitics, a form of political reasoning that takes the biological life of the human species as its central object, and which emerged when the patient-centered ‘clinical gaze’ was redirected towards the population at large. Where the clinical gaze consisted of opening up cadavers to see pathologies the biopolitical gaze consisted of opening up and peering into ‘the population’ using statistical description and analysis. It is a social medicine directed at a social body. 

Dashboards assemble a perceptual field through which the COVID-19ified population, and world-at-large, is put on display before our eyes in real-time, or as close as we can come to the immediacy of real-time. In this sense, dashboards are rich in significance insofar as they exemplify the entanglement of seeing and knowing in contemporary political reasoning and governance. As social medicine’s stethoscopes or x-ray machines they are also governmental technologies. 

Two ways of seeing are made possible by COVID-19 dashboards. First, these dashboards make possible a ‘classificatory gaze.’ Dynamic and interactive choropleth maps displaying COVID-19 case numbers or COVID-19 related deaths render visible the spatial variation of the disease. In doing so, they allow one to compare and rank political jurisdictions, be it a city, state, province or country, against each other. On a more personal level, they allow a person to spatially situate themselves in relation to ‘hotspots,’ ‘epicentres’ or ‘safe havens’. In this regard they conjure a risk landscape. 

Second, these COVID-19 dashboards make possible an ‘anticipatory gaze.’ Dynamic and interactive line graphs displaying the number of COVID-19 case numbers or COVID-19 related deaths day render visible the temporal variation of the disease. These bar charts and line graphs are extrapolated into ‘trend lines’ based on the assumption that disease outbreaks reach a peak before contracting. Dashboards provide a gaze into the possible futures, a future based on status quo vs. a future based on scenario x, y, or z. In this regard they bring the future into the present.  

Looking through the epistemological grid made possible by these dashboards, the COVID-19ified world appears to us as an immediate, seemingly unstoppable and undeniable reality. Dashboards are reality-construction machines that render the world spatially and temporally visible to us. This way of seeing, when linked with statements about COVID-19, is also a way of knowing, and this way of knowing, once expressed through and within the state’s statements, becomes biopolitical. Hence, data dashboards in the time of COVID-19 can be seen as one part of a biopolitical apparatus. 

References

Beer, D. (2019) The Data Gaze. London, UK: Sage Publications 

Foucault M, (2007) Security, Territory, Population. New York: Palgrave Macmillan

Images from Esri Canada and Health Map

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