Does your college’s COVID-19 dashboard make the grade?

A team of university leaders are not only giving out grades for pandemic sites but urging institutions to share information to help communities across the U.S.
By: | January 14, 2021
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How does your institution’s COVID-19 dashboard stack up?

If it made it onto the website We Rate Covid Dashboards, that’s a start. Launched and maintained by professors and student leaders from Yale, Harvard, Rice and Ohio State universities, it ranks colleges and universities on how informative and easy-to-navigate they have been in displaying pandemic information to their communities.

More than that, the portal offers an opportunity for those who have dashboards – and those that don’t – to share ideas and data to others across higher education. Though each institution is ranked on its site’s thoroughness, the takeaway most leaders get from scrolling through it is how they can improve their own dashboards.

Dr. Cary Gross, Professor of Medicine and Public Health at the Yale School of Medicine, says the importance of the information cannot be undersold, as more than 400,000 individuals on campuses have contracted COVID-19 and more than 650 colleges have had 100 or more cases.

“Colleges exist to educate to generate and share knowledge,” Gross said during the recent webinar Colleges, COVID-19 Dashboards & Transparency: Practical Approaches to Prepare for 2021. “Transparency is a fundamental mission of colleges when it comes to their behavior during the pandemic. Luckily, these pandemics don’t happen that often. There’s no playbook. So, colleges were doing their best to collect data. We thought it would be helpful to work collaboratively with stakeholders to put together a list of criteria that could be used by colleges to evaluate the dashboard efforts.”

That criteria, and its thoroughness, are rated across nine categories – some as simple as “easy to read” and “updated daily” to the more robust “frequency of testing” and “city/county data”. Colleges and universities that can tick off all boxes, including their own “student/staff results” and “quarantine/isolation” information are given points toward an overall grade.

Two of the best at it have been Wagner College in New York and Amherst College in Massachusetts, which have received A++ ratings and scores of 13 out of 13. But it’s also just as important, experts point out, to highlight the ones that didn’t receive perfect scores. For example, Northern Arizona received a very good B score but not an A because of its lack of city/county data to compare with what is happening on campus, as well as a lack of quarantine/isolation data.

Gross said institutions that can see weaknesses in their dashboards along with those that appear on others, ultimately can improve the information they send to their constituents.

“By providing these grades and sharing this information, it was really helpful to the larger community of colleges and stakeholders to help them to understand: What are the best practices out there and the overall status of COVID health at their school?” Gross said. “Some of these were present on many dashboards, but some of them were absent. We’ve really been blown away by the collaboration from people who have reached out to us. People have really been warm and receptive, collaborative and sharing.”

Right now, nearly 350 colleges and universities have openly shared their data on the site.

Starting up a dashboard

Dr. Lindsey Mortenson, a board-certified physician and director of University Health Services (UHS) at the University of Michigan, said putting together its dashboard was “a little bit like trying to assemble a car while it’s rolling downhill … and under the microscope of students, faculty, staff and alumni all over the world.”

Michigan began like most colleges and universities, with an Excel spreadsheet tracking cases on campus and reporting them to internal stakeholders. She said it became clear that beyond getting testing ramped up, Michigan needed to get others involved (UHS and Occupational Health Services) and include other data from the county and state to show comparisons to what was happening on campus.

After it compiled the numbers and launched the dashboard, she said “there were all kinds of reactions, ranging from: this is amazing, we love it to, oh my gosh, this is terrible. Why don’t you have X, Y and Z.”

So, Michigan upped the ante and created “a small army of people” to help in the dashboard effort ,including its School of Information, School of Public Health and Michigan Medicine.

“It feels very much like a county health department,” Mortenson said. “The dashboard was super critical in the evolution for us at the University of Michigan and how we evolved our COVID efforts.”

At Grinnell College in Iowa, the dashboard has been a key tool for the institution and the surrounding county, which has less than 20,000 residents.

“The dashboard is the dashboard for the county and the region, so it serves a purpose way beyond the college,” said Dr. Eli Perencevich, an advisor to the college who is also an infectious disease physician, epidemiologist and professor at the University of Iowa’s Carver College of Medicine. “The town does have an 80-bed hospital that during COVID can become very overwhelmed quickly. We wanted to have the regional data so that we can make informed decisions about opening up based on hospital availability.

“People have reached out to Grinnell – the mayor, students, superintendents, leaders at the hospital – and they’re using Grinnell’s dashboard to say ‘our surge is going to happen, should we close schools?’ It’s been a really important outreach tool.”

Having that county information should be included on the majority of college dashboards, said Gross.

“It reinforces that colleges don’t exist in bubbles,” he said. “Infection can go both ways, from students into the surrounding community and vice-versa. If you’re making decisions, you really have to incorporate both into the decision-making process.”

As Grinnell developed its dashboards, it began adding categories such as weekly number of tests and test positivity. Perencevich said Grinnell opted to include others such as whether there were mask mandates because many rural areas didn’t have them. Others that could be considered include  “Are there limits on gathering sizes? Is there social distancing?”

For Mortenson and her team – which got a boost from having the help of epidemiologist and Governor Task Force member Dr. Emily Martin on board – the release of the dashboard provided a gut check to the information they were delivering. Though it contained relevant information such as 7-day onset of cases, students and parents were clamoring for more, such as cases in residence halls, quarantine and isolation and occupancy in buildings.

“[Occupancy] was something people were really watching,” she said. “There was a point in mid-October where we were getting really high. We sat down with the health department and said, what are we going to do here? This is one of the early indicators that things have taken a bad turn for us. I think that there was a much broader conversation with more voices at the table because that data was public and transparent.”

The future of dashboards

What goes into a great dashboard? Ayotomiwa Ojo, a dual MD/MPP candidate at Harvard Medical School and Harvard Kennedy School of Government who has been instrumental in the We Rate Covid Dashboards site, said there are many considerations for information that should be included:

  1. How well are your categories labeled?
  2. When was the last time your data was updated … daily, weekly?
  3. Does it contain county or city-level data?
  4. How often are people being tested?
  5. What is the test turnaround time?
  6. How many students are in isolation and in quarantine?

Eric Mayberry, a data analytics leader at The Ohio State University and part of the site’s team of volunteers, said it’s important for colleges and universities to include as much information as possible while keeping it easy to read.

“Show as much as you can about the data,” he said. “We don’t want to adversely affect the community. We want parents and students to know that universities are doing the best we can to keep this in check. If you don’t have a dashboard, it’s never too late start. It doesn’t need to be anything fancy.”

He said that when it launches, be prepared for networks to be inundated. Ohio State has had as many as 50,000 visits to its Safe and Healthy Buckeyes Dashboard in one day, when normal traffic to the university site would be around 2,500.

Patrick Hansen, the founder of novéInsights, which works with institutions to help provide resources and help in their dashboard efforts, said the more visually appealing and easy to navigate, the better informed those who visit will be. He agrees that having a comparison between county data and campus data are key to seeing larger trends. He says tracking data for county numbers doesn’t have to be something done in house. It can be done by utilizing information from others, such as the New York Times.

His company offers step-by-step instructions along with embed codes, as well as links to other free workbooks and accessibility resources, to help take a simple dashboard and make it more informative. He says colleges and universities eventually can add whatever categories they want – faculty vs. staff cases or athletes – to build up their dashboard.

“This is meant to be as easy as possible to get your feet wet and start doing something,” Hansen said.

Once launched, Mayberry and Gross caution that it is important that COVID data be checked frequently, especially if testing is going through third parties off campus. Even when tests come back positive, it is important to note some may have elicited false positives.

Although many dashboards for COVID are now well-established, there are potential new applications for them on the immediate horizon – namely vaccines. Should colleges try to launch their own vaccine dashboards or incorporate that into COVID dashboards? That is something to consider because that information will be just as vital as test and positivity rates.

“I’m excited to see how dashboards are going to evolve,” Mortenson said. “I’m already seeing some states put up dashboards about vaccination. There’s a lot of interest in reporting out on which vaccines people are getting, what percentage of people are getting a second dose and what happens to transmission and positivity rates.”

There could be even more uses for dashboards.

“Even bigger health issues, like renewable energy or food waste or wait times for Student Health Services,” Perencevich said.