Britain is going through another wave of Covid-19. Last Friday, the Health Security Agency1 began reporting infection numbers on a weekly, rather than daily basis.
As we move from pandemic to endemic, management of COVID-19 no longer requires the rapid deployment of specific interventions which respond to changing daily data.
It’s time for another FOI request and a meta-post about how many people are checking the dashboard. I sent roughly the same request as last year, and the HSA responded with this letter.
The HSA clarified that they don’t hold numbers on unique visitors per month, but they do have weekly unique page views. I appreciate this response: they don’t have what I asked for, but they know I want stats on dashboard viewers so that’s what they’ve given.
This data wasn’t collected for the first two weeks of August 2021.
Data was collected as unique daily users, we didn’t collect data on unique weekly or monthly users. The daily numbers are presented as weekly averages.
I assume that the HSA continues to follow the Government Digital Services policy of not tracking users without consent. Because of that policy, and the difference in how viewers are recorded, it’s not possible to compare with 2020/21.
I wrote their figures into a csv file and made a graph.
Weekly average dashboard viewership shot up toward the end of October 2021, held through November, leading to a peak of 758,000 viewers in the last week of the year. From there, it gradually declined, back down to just under 100,000 viewers in the last week of May 2022.
I recognise the peak in the Christmas holiday, cases were surging and there was a real feeling that the country might have to go back into lockdown to suppress the spread. At the beginning of December 2021 the government announced a rapid set of new measures making face masks compulsory in public settings, advising people to work from home, and enforce checking the NHS Covid pass at large events. The daily news bulletins were dominated by reports on the Omicron variant.
What isn’t obvious is the sharp rise in dashboard visitors in late October 2021. The Omicron variant didn’t emerge until November, there was no surge in cases and no new measures announced. The only coincidental event I can see is the rollout of booster vaccinations. Were people flocking to the dashboard to track the takeup of boosters?
Dashboards and open data
Two years on, the Coronavirus dashboard could be a case study for a successful government open data project. A representative poll of 2,563 people conducted between September and October 2021 found 35% of respondents had used the Coronavirus dashboard. There was even a well documented and simple API to go with it.
In a reflection on the project, the technical lead Pouria Hadjibagheri wrote:
Nearly two years ago, I and a handful of colleagues created the UK Coronavirus Dashboard. We did not do so because we were tasked, but because we felt it was essential for our country to stay informed.
Nobody asked Hadjibagheri or his colleagues to make the dashboard, they just did it because they (correctly) felt it would be useful. Collecting daily death figures for an ongoing pandemic is also several levels of seriousness beyond the ‘cool side project’ that spontaneous initiatives usually come from. I would be fascinated to hear the detailed story of how the dashboard came about, and all the social/technical challenges the team faced to keep it running.
If the dashboard is still online in 2023, I’ll do another of these review posts. If it gets quietly shut down before then, the visitor numbers here speak for themselves.
The Health Security Agency is the body which replaced Public Health England in October last year. ↩