‘Statistics Are Vital’ is a joint campaign by the Royal Statistical Society and Significance magazine, celebrating the work of statisticians during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The RSS speaks to Clare Griffiths, Head of the UK Covid-19 dashboard at the UK Health Security Agency. She has worked in statistics for over 20 years and was previously Head of Profession for Statistics at Public Health England (PHE).
‘Alongside the London Stock Exchange, the value of the pound and the weather forecast, the Covid dashboard is among the most important and high profile daily statistical publications in the UK right now.’
How did you become involved in the response to Covid-19?
In April 2020, I was asked to lend my expertise to the Covid-19 dashboard team. At that time, it was a very small team looking for more support. As a statistician with a background in mortality statistics and a good knowledge of infectious disease surveillance, I felt that I was up to the challenge, and things developed from there.
I now lead the dashboard team, and together we publish this vital daily stream of data. As leader I still have a direct hand in the daily number crunching as well as analysis, troubleshooting, quality assurance and providing final sign off before the Dashboard updates are published daily at 4pm.
When did you realise that Covid was going to have a massive impact on your life?
As the pandemic started to ramp up around February 2020, I had already been thinking about what I and analytical colleagues skilled at working with big data could do to help. A pandemic needs a different approach compared to the diseases and outbreaks which we usually deal with; there is a much larger volume of data and a hugely increased scrutiny of outputs.
Having worked at the Office for National Statistics previously, I first became involved in the pandemic response through talking to them about weekly death reporting. Following this, the first iteration of the dashboard was launched in early March and evolved rapidly, becoming much more streamlined in April. We knew then that the dashboard would remain a key focus of our daily lives, but no one could have expected that the need for daily Covid-19 data would continue for so long.
Which aspects of your work on Covid are you most proud of?
As a team, we’re proud of the contribution to the wider effort and pandemic response our work has made and how that work has continued to develop in response to the needs of policy makers and the public.
When we first started the Covid-19 dashboard back in March 2020, it was just a map and a few charts reporting four metrics on cases and deaths. How that has changed! We are now publishing nearly 200 metrics at 4pm each day – which adds up to well over 40 million individual figures – as hundreds of thousands of users across the country refresh their browsers in anticipation.
Alongside the London Stock Exchange, the value of the pound and the weather forecast, the Covid dashboard is among the most important and high profile daily statistical publications in the UK right now.
What’s the greatest challenge you have faced during the pandemic?
A huge challenge has been the absolute scrutiny of every aspect of our work by experts, academics, the media and the public. We have never experienced such pressure before.
How did you cope with this sudden interest in your work and the pressure to deliver?
The pandemic has been unprecedented and I think everyone involved in the response found it difficult to keep a work-life balance initially. I have two teenage children and needed to take time off to look after them – PHE was very good in supporting my needs, and as colleagues, we all worked to cover one another during the crisis.
How did you and your colleagues stay motivated?
There is motivation in doing something you know is incredibly valuable. Being part of the response to an unrelenting global emergency can be exhausting, but what has kept us going through the nights, weekends, holidays and three lockdowns has been our close relationship with the dashboard’s users. And of course, the amazing and supportive team we have built.
There were a few moments for me personally which really drove home the importance of what we were doing. Seeing people around the world sharing or talking about the work you have been involved in is exciting and drives home the power of the work. Equally, sitting at home and watching the headlines focus on the developments and updates we have made to the dashboard – what can seem like a minor decision to provide a little more insight in a quick meeting can steer the discussion around the pandemic response.
What’s likely to change in your role as we move out of the pandemic?
As long as it is needed, we will carry on publishing the data daily. The dashboard and my role in the UKHSA may continue to change as the needs in the pandemic change – though I do look forward to returning to [my previous work on] health improvement at some point in the future.
What positives do you take from this otherwise difficult period?
The increased profile of data and analysis has been great. We really need to harness this hunger for data and keep people interested in health data science and how it plays into their own health and wellbeing.
The dashboard has become an exemplar of open and transparent data across government and really has allowed the open use of data. If the dashboard could be used as a model for the way in which we publish and report data, this would benefit government, journalists and analysts. Publishing the data has allowed external teams, particularly at a regional and local level, to do far more analysis than one central team would have capacity for.
View the UK Covid-19 dashboard at https://coronavirus.data.gov.uk/
Read other interviews in the Statistics Are Vital series:
An interview with Thomas Jaki
An interview with Sarah Caul MBE