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B.C. ‘by far the worst’ on releasing COVID-19 data, expert says

Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix provide a COVID-19 briefing. Richard Zussman/Global News

B.C. needs to be far more transparent about COVID-19 data and release it to the public in a clear and convenient way, according to a Vancouver-based data scientist.

“I would probably say B.C. is by far the worst when it comes to releasing data looking across Canada,” Jens von Bergmann told Global News.

Read more: Okanagan teachers feel lives ‘expendable’ as B.C. mask mandate excludes classrooms: union

Von Bergmann, who is the founder of data analysis company MountainMath, said B.C. is already collecting a lot of this data — such as the number of cases by occupation, the number of transmission events in schools, and the number of cases by municipality or neighbourhood — and it should be made public, to allow groups, local governments and advocates to tailor their responses to the pandemic.

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“For example, with the schools, where a lot of the decisions about the implementation details have been offloaded to the school districts, to individual schools, even to individual classrooms when teachers have asked how they should deal with certain situations,” he said.

“But on the flip side, we don’t give them the information to actually make those informed decisions.”

Parents of school-aged children, advocates for certain ethnic communities, and even a group of Lower Mainland mayors have all asked the B.C. government to release more detailed information pertaining to the spread of COVID-19 in their communities, but have been denied due to privacy concerns.

B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Premier John Horgan have also said they don’t want to get too specific about geographical data to avoid giving a false sense of security to people living in areas with relatively small case numbers.

Read more: Metro Vancouver mayors facing COVID-19 surge call for more regional data

Where the province does release data, it’s often not specific enough, von Bergmann said, and is often presented in graphs without the datasets they are made from.

He said that means journalists and data scientists — begrudgingly, in von Bergmann’s case — have to keep track of their own data, when the government should simply be making their datasets public.

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“I’m sort of fairly adverse to the idea of scraping data out of graphs simply because I believe the government should just provide this. I mean, they’ve already released the data. They should just do it in a more convenient form,” he said.

In fact, von Bergmann has begun enlisting the help of his 10-year-old son to scrape data from government graphs, using digital tools and a bribe of ice cream, funded by von Bergmann’s Twitter followers.

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“Of course people have asked the BCCDC for electronic data inserting graphs they publish. But the BCCDC has repeatedly refused such requests,” von Bergmann wrote in a Nov. 23 tweet.

“Sometimes citing ‘privacy’, sometimes other reasons, for their refusal. It’s beyond ridiculous.”

Read more: COVID-19-stricken B.C. school ‘should have been closed a week ago,’ say parents

Von Bergmann said he wants B.C. to move past this and start providing better data — especially after a data processing error that saw mistakes in the reported case numbers out of Fraser Health for a whole week.

Dr. Henry said Wednesday that a technical problem was to blame for that.

“Well, this is the travails of our IT systems and the fact that we’ve increased capacity in our lab by bringing in other labs that have interoperable, supposedly, systems,” she told reporters.

“So a patch was put on one of the systems a week ago, over the weekend, and the anomaly was only detected yesterday.”

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Von Bergmann, however, isn’t satisfied with that explanation.

“We’re in November and something that started in January, we started taking seriously in March — and we still haven’t figured out how to do basic data processes so that we can have accurate numbers, so that we don’t have to revise a couple of days back of data,” he said.

“I just don’t understand how this can happen.”

Click to play video 'Coronavirus: Breaking down the latest B.C. case numbers, including an error in Tuesday’s data' Coronavirus: Breaking down the latest B.C. case numbers, including an error in Tuesday’s data
Coronavirus: Breaking down the latest B.C. case numbers, including an error in Tuesday’s data – Nov 25, 2020