Meet The Team Behind The Coronavirus Tracker Watched By Millions

Apr 13, 2020
Originally published on April 14, 2020 7:31 pm

For the latest COVID-19 statistics, updated in near real time, millions of people around the world have been turning to an interactive, Web-based dashboard created by a small team at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

From its humble beginnings, that dashboard has become one of the world's most authoritative sources for the latest coronavirus numbers and trends. The project has filled an information vacuum, providing the most up-to-date, comprehensive picture of the virus' global scope and spread.

The dashboard was born, as these things often are, under the influence of caffeine.

"We were sitting around a table. We were all drinking lattes," recalls Lauren Gardner, 35, associate professor of civil and systems engineering at Johns Hopkins.

This was back on Jan. 21. Gardner, whose specialty is modeling the spread of infectious diseases such as Zika, dengue and measles, had been paying close attention to early reports of a deadly new virus spreading in China.

Lauren Gardner, associate professor of civil and systems engineering at Johns Hopkins University, manages the COVID-19 dashboard project for the university's Center for Systems Science and Engineering.
Will Kirk/Johns Hopkins University

At that meeting over coffee, she asked Ensheng Dong, a first-year Ph.D. student she advises, if he had been following news of the coronavirus. He had. Dong, 30, is from Shanxi province in China, and he knew there had been confirmed cases in his hometown.

"I really worry about my family over there," he told Gardner.

What's more, Dong has a lot of friends who live in Wuhan, which was then at the heart of the epidemic.

"I could see their numbers growing larger and larger every day," Dong says.

Gardner had an idea.

"She mentioned, 'Why don't we make a dashboard?' " Dong says. "I'm thinking, 'Yes. Why not?!' "

So, Dong got busy, and by that same night he had created a dashboard showing cases of the disease, COVID-19, caused by the novel coronavirus.

Back then, his map was splashed with just a smattering of red circles, indicating a grand total of 320 confirmed cases. Nearly all of them were in China; a handful more were in Thailand, Japan and South Korea.

Over the months that followed, as the epidemic turned into a pandemic and as the number of confirmed cases grew from several hundred to nearly 2 million, Dong watched those red circles on the map spread steadily and fast, all over the globe.

"It's kind of a bloody map," Dong says. "There's so many red dots everywhere."

In the first few weeks, Dong was entering all of the data by himself, manually plugging the numbers of confirmed cases, recoveries and deaths into the dashboard. That quickly turned into a monumental task. Now, nearly all of the data are entered automatically.

As the dashboard grew more popular and demand surged, there were times when the servers crashed.

"Actually, if I ever knew that this project will go [so] big, maybe I would [reconsider doing] that!" Dong jokes.

Ensheng Dong, a first-year Ph.D. student, helped create a dashboard showing cases of the disease, COVID-19, caused by the novel coronavirus.
Lizao Zhang

For Gardner, who manages the dashboard project for Johns Hopkins' Center for Systems Science and Engineering, it's a role that has become all-consuming.

"I didn't envision being dashboard person — that's for sure," she says, noting that the dashboard she first envisioned as a valuable tool for academic research has evolved into something far bigger.

"I think what we massively underestimated was the general public's interest," she says. "It didn't even cross our mind how popular the interface would be. ... People are just really desperate for information that they trust."

The Hopkins team scrapes its numbers from dozens of sources, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and the National Health Commission of the People's Republic of China, as well as U.S. state health departments and media-aggregating websites.

The dashboard team has grown from two members to a couple of dozen, and they're constantly working on new features. This week, they've added maps showing per capita rates of COVID-19 testing, hospitalization and incidence, as well as case-fatality ratios.

The team would love to have other data made available, including the race and gender of COVID-19 patients, according to Dong.

Gardner and her team work to maintain the COVID-19 dashboard, built by Gardner's team at the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.
Will Kirk/Johns Hopkins University

The Hopkins dashboard is open-source, made freely available to users. Thousands of other dashboards, including NPR's, pull the Hopkins data into their own. "And I think that's awesome," Gardner says.

Beyond the snapshot of what is happening now, the data are also being used to do modeling, which in turn drives state and federal policy. "We're absolutely doing short-term forecasting," Gardner says, "looking at what are the next spatial hot spots. Where should we be allocating resources to better prepare for the next city or the next state that's gonna see a surge in cases?"

The Hopkins team also recently joined in a study from NASA, modeling how climate and seasonality are contributing to the coronavirus outbreak.

As the dashboard project goes on, Dong says what began with him worrying about his family in China has flipped. With the U.S. now bearing the brutal brunt of the pandemic, he says, it's his family's turn to worry about him.

Clarification: 4/13/20

An earlier version of this story, as well as an earlier caption, said the novel coronavirus was named COVID-19. COVID-19 is the name of the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

For the latest COVID-19 statistics updated in nearly real time, millions of people around the world are turning to an interactive web-based dashboard. It was created by a small team at Johns Hopkins University. And as NPR's Melissa Block reports, from its humble beginnings, that dashboard has become one of the most authoritative sources for the latest coronavirus numbers and trends.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: The project was born - as these things often are - under the influence of caffeine.

LAUREN GARDNER: We were sitting around a table. We were all drinking lattes.

BLOCK: This was back on January 21. Lauren Gardner, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins, had been paying close attention to early reports of a deadly new virus spreading in China. That's her specialty - modeling the spread of infectious disease. And over that coffee, she asked her Ph.D. student Ensheng Dong if he'd been following news of the coronavirus.

ENSHENG DONG: And I said, yes, I know that. And I really worry about my family over there.

BLOCK: Dong is from Shanxi province in China. He knew there were confirmed cases in his hometown. Well, professor Gardner had an idea.

DONG: And she mentioned, why don't we make a dashboard? I'm thinking, yes, why not?

BLOCK: So Dong got busy. And by that same night, he had created a dashboard of coronavirus cases. Back then, his map showed just a smattering of red circles, indicating a grand total of 320 confirmed cases, all but a handful in China. Over the months, as the epidemic turned into a pandemic and as the number of confirmed cases has grown from several hundred to nearly 2 million, Dong has watched those red circles on the map spread steadily and fast all over the globe.

DONG: It's kind of a bloody map. There's so many red dots everywhere.

BLOCK: In the beginning, Dong was entering all the data by himself, manually plugging the numbers of confirmed cases, recoveries and deaths into the dashboard, which quickly turned into a monumental task. Now nearly all the data is entered automatically. The dashboard filled an information vacuum. As it grew more popular, demand was so heavy that the servers crashed.

DONG: Actually, if I ever knew that this project would go such big, maybe I would reconsidering to do that.

GARDNER: I didn't envision being dashboard person, that's for sure (laughter).

BLOCK: But that's what Gardner is doing, managing the dashboard for the Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering, a task that's become all-consuming.

GARDNER: I think what we massively underestimated was the general public's interest. People are just really desperate for information that they trust.

BLOCK: The Hopkins dashboard team scrapes their numbers from dozens of sources, including the CDC and World Health Organization, also state and local health authorities and media aggregating websites. The team has grown from two to a couple dozen, and they're always looking for new features.

GARDNER: OK. Let's resize the bubbles for the mortality rate.

DONG: I'll do that right now.

BLOCK: Last week, a few team members gathered around a table, socially distancing with bottles of hand sanitizer nearby. They were puzzling through additions to the map, like mortality rates and testing data.

GARDNER: Do you have any idea how to put them on the same web map? 'Cause I like that idea, but I...

BLOCK: Their COVID-19 dashboard is open source, made freely available. Thousands of other dashboards, including NPR's, pull the Hopkins data into their own.

GARDNER: And I think that's awesome.

BLOCK: Beyond the snapshot of what's happening now, Gardner says the data are being used to drive state and federal policy.

GARDNER: We're absolutely doing short-term forecasting, looking at, what are the next spatial hotspots? Where should we be allocating resources to try to better prepare for the next city or the next state that's going to see a surge in cases?

BLOCK: And they just joined a study from NASA modeling how climate and seasonality are contributing to the COVID outbreak. As the project goes on, grad student Ensheng Dong says what started with him worrying about his family in China has flipped. Now with the U.S. bearing the brutal brunt of the pandemic, he says it's his family's turn to worry about him.

Melissa Block, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.