‘Defending ourselves with Data’: The Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker
Image Description: Collage of some of the OxCGRT coders in a Zoom-like format.
COVID-19 has undoubtedly wreaked havoc upon the world as we know it, with not a single individual unaffected. From travel, work, uni, everyday activities, to even face-to-face interactions, so much of what was once familiar and ‘normal’ has been taken away from us all, both by the virus itself and the measures with which governments around the world have had to take to respond to it. To many, it feels as though the virus has been around for an eternity. And yet, the rapid rate at which the pandemic has spread throughout our increasingly globalised and interconnected world has meant that governments and other institutions have hit the ground running: responding to a completely unprecedented phenomenon with a plethora of measures never used before. From social distancing to various types of lockdown, ideas were (and are still) being tested on the go. So how are we to know what works, and what doesn’t? How can governments learn to live with a virus that, until a vaccine comes out, will continue to impact us all?
Led by Dr Thomas Hale, a group of researchers from Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government offered a solution: Defending Ourselves with Data.
Emerging from the Blavatnick’s Schools MPP program’s “Politics and Policymaking” class, the group noticed that, since March, governments around the world were adopting a variety of different policies and measures. However, they could not find a data source to track them all. Upon realising that the MPP group itself represented over 50 countries, they decided to organise all the information about their respective countries together themselves and, within a few weeks, launched the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker (OxCGRT).
The OxCGRT was launched as an accessible, online tool providing global, comparative, accurate, and up-to-date information on government responses to COVID-19 for research and policy-making. Speaking to The Oxford Student, Dr Hale and his team have described the process as “building the plane as it flies”: the goal of their consistent and rigorous data collection to help decision-makers calibrate policies in an effective manner that ultimately saves lives. Longer term, this information will also be an integral record of policy making for the future, offering insights not only into management of pandemics, but other kinds of global crises.
The Tracker systematically collects information based on an ordinal scale: an ordered categorisation based on 17 indicators of government responses from containment and closure policies (such as workplace closures and movement restrictions), economic policies (such as income support), to health system policies (such as testing measures). These are filtered into four main indices which designate the number and intensity of policies on given issues:
Overall Government Response
Containment and Health (including contact tracing)
Original Stringency, or strictness of ‘lockdown’ policies
This broad approach, taking into consideration a wide variety of policies, makes the OxCGRT unique but also significantly holistic. Dr Hale has suggested that this granular approach, which allows us to look at measures in aggregate, gives a sense of how ‘open’ or ‘close’ a jurisdiction which, to him, is more helpful than generic labels like ‘lockdown’ which have multifarious meanings in different contexts.
With its collection of data continously spreading across over 190 countries, the OxCGRT not only focuses on federal policies, but the diversity of measures implemented by individual states and regions which can differ widely in countries such as the United States, Brazil, and India.
However, because of this diverse range of information, data collection can’t be achieved with computers or automation. Instead, it requires a global team of hundreds of trained volunteer data collectors – most of them Oxford students – to understand and coalesce policies from government sources. Each week, they are assigned certain jurisdictions, scouring a diverse array of information from executive orders, statements by government officials, leaders, health ministers, foreign offices, government websites and news reports, to even official Facebook videos and public service announcements. This data is then checked again by reviewers. Dr Hale admits that, of course, the best check is public scrutiny. Hence, a crucial aspect of the Tracker is the nature of its accessibility; being readily available online, not only is the information open to anyone, but it also allows for crowdsourcing a lot of data checking.
In addition to this data collection, a major area of ongoing research is the evaluation of this data and analysis of what policies that have or haven’t worked. Hundreds of papers have already been produced using the data of the Tracker to gauge the effectiveness of policies. Thus, the hopes of the OxCGRT team to empower researchers globally through its freely available information are already coming to fruition.
It is undeniable that another wave seems imminent across Europe. When asked about this current situation, Dr Hale responded:
“The lessons from the early months of the pandemic are very clear. To break the chain of infection, you need early and hard restrictions. Delay only draws out the process, creating a need for more restrictive measures for longer, resulting in more disruption. Once you flatten the curve, you need continuing soft measures to reduce risk, and a very robust test, trace, and isolate system to catch outbreaks before they spread. Even then, you may need to increase closure and containment measures to ensure you are stamping out new outbreaks. I fear too many European countries have been too slow to “re-flatten” the curve, and have not used the time lockdown buys them to build up strong test, trace, and isolate regimes. With winter coming, lockdown fatigue rising, and COVID-19 restrictions increasingly contested politically, political leaders need to make rigorously evidence-based decisions—which is what the Tracker is trying to empower.”
It seems the Tracker is more crucial now than ever before. Data, and utilising it in the best capacity, is integral to ensuring the protection of livelihoods, businesses, social and individual wellbeing, and the saving of lives.
Now more than ever is national and international co-operation crucial to mitigating the effects of the fast-moving virus. The OxCGRT epitomises this in its principle of bringing together a community of individuals and volunteers from all over the world to collect data on such unprecedented circumstances and policies that, in its accessibility, can be used by researchers and governments to fight for “#Team Humanity” and have a tangible impact against an elusive virus.
The OxCGRT team are currently looking for student volunteers to help with data collection. Volunteers are asked to sign up for 3 months and contribute 3-5 hours a week depending on availability, and will undergo training prior to commencing research. Weekly meetings take place every Thursday for students to check in and ask questions. If you would like to sign up, please register here, or for more information please visit the OxCGRT website.