The Little Website That Could
By Grant Ainsley | Tips | [comments] | Posted [date]
As hundreds of thousands of students begin their first full week of education of this school year, they'll be the focus of a huge number of media reports. Reporters will ask questions like, has the return to school been successful? How many COVID cases are we seeing in schools and will any schools have to close because of massive outbreaks?
As this is taking place, Alberta Health Services and Dr. Deena Hinshaw have encountered a hurdle from an unexpected place. A website, created by volunteers, has apparently forced AHS to disclose more information about the virus in schools.
For six months, the government was the sole source of COVID information, but not anymore.
The Numbers Game
There’s nobody who has been quoted more in Alberta over the past six months than Dr. Hinshaw, the Chief Medical Officer of Health. Every media availability she’s held is followed by a baseball-type box score, including the number of new coronavirus cases, number of total cases, number of recoveries and number of deaths.
TV stations have been plunking these numbers into nice graphical boxes for months and newspapers carry colourful charts with the latest numbers from Dr. Hinshaw. Almost everything she says gets reported. Alberta Health Services (AHS) has been really good at updating this information, along with all kinds of other data, including the number of tests. The information has been accurate and when it hasn’t been, Dr. Hinshaw has gone out of her way to correct it.
That’s why I was surprised when something happened last week that was reported, but not really examined in the way it should be.
David Beats Goliath
As children were going back to school right after the Labour Day weekend, Dr. Hinshaw was asked about a website that showed different numbers of coronavirus cases in schools than she was reporting.
Hinshaw told the news conference that people in 11 schools had contracted the virus, but the Support Our Students (SOS) website was reporting a number approximately twice that high and had details on each case. At that news conference, the website was mentioned in a question from Calgary Herald columnist Don Braid, who later than day wrote an excellent article about the website and the problem it had created for the government.
For six months, the media had taken statistical information from Dr. Hinshaw and Alberta Health Services. Now however, there was another source for that information, the SOS Alberta website, and it appeared to have more updated and detailed information about the virus in schools than what the government was giving us.
Suddenly Alberta Health Services, which by the way has about 115,000 employees and an annual budget of around $20 billion, was being embarrassed by a website run by a group of volunteers, who describe themselves as public education advocates.
What followed was really interesting. Dr. Hinshaw said she was aware of the website and explained why her numbers may be lower than what the website was reporting. Hinshaw remained firm in saying an outbreak wouldn’t be declared in any school until there were five cases.
The following day, Hinshaw said the government would soon have a page on the COVID19 website that listed which schools had cases. The numbers would be updated on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. She also announced if there were only two cases in a school, it would now be classified as an outbreak.
The following day she announced the page on the COVID19 site would be updated daily to give the public the latest information.
Information is Power
A lot changed in three days. The government went from releasing no information on which schools had been hit with COVID cases, to having a page up and running and being updated on a daily basis.
Is there anyone who believes Alberta Health Services would have taken this stunning about face if the SOS website didn’t exist? Not me.
The beauty of the SOS Alberta website is that it’s constantly being updated with information. It added new graphical elements this weekend. Its core information comes from students and parents on the ground. When a letter goes home to parents saying a COVID case has been reported by someone in the school, that information is being sent to the SOS website. SOS seems to be getting its information as quickly as AHS.
The site has links to stories in the news media about many of the cases in schools, copies of letters being sent home from schools and some great graphical maps, detailing where the cases are being reported. In case you're wondering, this morning the site reported 46 schools with cases and six outbtreaks.
The real beauty of the site is that there’s nothing the government can do about it, short of ordering schools not to share information about cases with parents. I’m not suggesting it would – that’s the last thing that would happen in a time like this.
This has forced AHS to learn to live with the website, take steps to share the information it can, and do it all at a breakneck pace. However, when I looked at the information on the AHS page on the weekend, the way the information is presented is nowhere near as good as the SOS site. The SOS site tells you right up front how many schools have reported cases, where they have been reported and gives details on each one.
Again, if I had to choose which site to go to to get the latest information it’s easy decision – the SOS site. Quite frankly, because of the way the information is presented, I also believe the numbers on the site. The AHS site seems to be consciously trying to bury the confirmed cases with all the schools not reporting any.
Dr. Hinshaw reminded us last week that hundreds of schools had not seen any cases. That’s not the story here. The story is about schools that have.
That’s a problem for government, which up until now, has been the one to provide all the information. It’s been forced to share more information than it planned on and did it in a matter of days, all because of a website run by volunteers, who care about the education students are getting in the classroom.
I thought that was the government’s job?
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