A Million Hits a Week: How Israel’s Official COVID Data Site Went Viral

After the public’s crisis of confidence in the Health Ministry at the beginning of the pandemic, the ministry created a site with data that decision-makers see accessible to the public. ‘When people can pay with the figures themselves, greater confidence is created,’ the ministry's chief of information technologies says

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The information technologies team at the Health Ministry (L to R): Genady Zaslavsky, Hani Levy, Barak Shukrun, Rona Kaiser.
The information technologies team at the Health Ministry (L to R): Genady Zaslavsky, Hani Levy, Barak Shukrun, Rona Kaiser.Credit: Emil Salman
Ronny Linder
Ronny Linder
Ronny Linder
Ronny Linder

At the beginning of the pandemic, confusion and chaos ruled the day, and the information on the number of confirmed and hospitalized COVID cases, the seriously ill and deaths came from officials or leaks from various bodies to journalists who managed to get their hands on the occasional report.

Data was released at different times of day, making it difficult to understand exactly which time period was involved when updated figures were announced, and the confidence of the public, whose nerves were already frayed, was repeatedly undermined.

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Two months later, the Health Ministry’s “coronavirus dashboard” – a site where all the data was updated in real time – became part of the COVID routine, getting a million hits a week at one point.

“This is a crazy number relative to our usual hits, between 20,000 and 60,000 a day, and this figure repeated itself quite a few times,” says Rona Kaiser, vice president of information technologies at the Health Ministry, whose department devised and designed the dashboard and built it with the help of the military’s elite cyber Unit 8200. “The highest point was during the first vaccination drive, when we entered the figures on the vaccinations.”

Credit: Hadas Parush

How did you actually decide what to focus on, beyond the obvious figures like the number of confirmed carriers, the seriously ill, etc.?

“We collect the queries from many and varied sources, via the spokesman’s office, questions from journalists, requests by means of the Freedom of Information Law, monitoring social media and conversations with opinion leaders with whom we’re in contact. We also pay close attention to the needs of the ministry and the parameters it wants to check. Say there’s a discussion about policy in the team dealing with the pandemic. For example, whether to go back to masking and under what circumstances. We try to see what information we have to support the decisions and bring up other information.”

What is most interesting to users searching the website?

“It depends on the time period. There was a certain period when deaths from COVID were a major focus, and the whole issue of hospitalized patients was very much in demand, because that was how a lockdown was decided on. When the vaccinations started, their impact was what interested people. There are a lot of challenges here. For example, when it was decided to change the definition of who is seriously ill – that had to be done retroactively on the dashboard.”

So people asked why you changed the definition and suspicions increased.

“Exactly. Everybody asked us about that, so we understood how to do it right – for example, we added an information icon that explains the change. Slowly but surely we learned to communicate digitally with the public and lessen all the ‘surprises.’ To say ahead of time, notice that we’ve made a change. It brought down the levels of lack of confidence.”

Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presenting Covid-19 cases and vaccination numbers at a press conference, last year.Credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO

There’s a reason confidence is mentioned again and again in connection with the dashboard. There’s a lot more involved than simply presenting the data and playing with charts. The dashboard is very much an unending test of the public’s fragile confidence in the Health Ministry, its transparency and its decision-making – and all of this is taking place amid a global pandemic and an endless political crisis that is also contributing to suspicion and lack of trust, typical of the world in general right now.

In a not-very-long period of time, ministry officials were able to go t from a preliminary sketch on paper and the current situation, in which a well-oiled machine receives data in real-time from 1,000 different locations and updates the dashboard twice a day – for the public and decision-makers. But the struggle to maintain public confidence never ends.

Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The first weeks of the pandemic were completely chaotic: information leaked out in dribs and drabs, much of it by leaks; reports were not clear enough and were missing much information, and they were coming from different bodies at the same time – the National Security Council, the military command center for dealing with the pandemic, the Health Ministry and Military Intelligence.

“True. In the first month and a half of the pandemic, we were gathering information with the tools we had then – all kinds of internal reports, some collected manually on Excel files. Somebody in the ministry would communicate with all the labs and the hospitals and get information on the number of patients hospitalized in the COVID wards and the number of positive PCR tests that day – and that was it, more or less. This information was presented in an internal and very restricted system that existed at that time. All the data was collected by the Health Ministry and all the agencies took it from our system. The problem was that anybody who took the information chose to write their own reports, and there was no correlation between them, although the source was identical.”

This caused a serious lack of faith in the data.

“Very much so, and that led to a lot of noise, because the discourse was unclear. And so one of the messages we repeated was that it was impossible to go on confusing the public; people had to be able to depend on one source of information, because when you want to manage a pandemic, you have to maintain transparency spark confidence and cooperation by reflecting reliable data, and encourage the right behavior.

The first draft of the dashboard was prepared back in March 2020 – a month after the first confirmed case. It went live two months later, on May 1, toward the end of the first wave.

“When we built it, we told ourselves it wasn’t enough to make the information accessible – it had to be useful for different groups. A 16-year-old girl might not get into all the graphs, but she will care how many confirmed cases or seriously ill patients there are. At the same time, we have groups who want to delve in, like journalists and academic researchers. And so the dashboard is built in layers: The important figures are visible right away, and after that you can go deeper. The more we developed and received queries, the deeper the segmentations went. The issues of cybersecurity and privacy also preoccupied us no less than confidence.”

The dashboard is, of course, much more than a set of cool graphics that can be played around with. In fact, it’s the showcase of a huge infrastructure of the transmission, processing and upgrading of information. Since it was launched, data collection has greatly improved. “In order can make decisions, we had to spread a crazy net of data collection, and today there are more than 1,000 information providers – hospitals and HMOs, private labs, the workers taking samples for Magen David Adom, and private testing. We have to be in touch with more than 1,000 geriatric facilities to get information from them and give them information, and we constantly supplemented the information that passed through.”

The military was a partner in the technological effort led by the Health Ministry, especially Unit 8200, which helped build the underlying infrastructure. But the task was not over when the dashboard went live, and in a certain sense, the challenges only began then. “In the first iteration they saw deaths, quarantines, tests, information on morbidity and quarantining of medical personnel, capacity and overloads in hospitals,” Kaiser says.

And then the criticism and lack of confidence started. People asked, for example, why it said a certain hospital was at 100 percent capacity while people who were there saw empty beds. Thing like this fed conspiracy theories, as if someone was playing with the numbers for political ends.

“With the issue of capacity there was indeed a problem, so we removed that box until we fixed the mistakes. You have to understand that we rely on information that comes from the hospitals, and if they convey partial information, that’s what is shown. We learned about the mistakes from the field, like from journalists or opinion leaders who made criticism on social media, and then we would contact them and ask what was missing and fill it in. There were also representative from the ultra-Orthodox community and we received feedback and questions from them, and we would make corrections in order to be more precise with the information and build confidence.”

But relying on queries from reporters or tweets is not enough.

“Right. And so later, to systemically overcome the gaps in information and prevent mistakes before they happened, during the pandemic we built a monitoring system that scrutinized the quality of the data and their likelihood. How many ministries are prepared to admit mistakes and willingness to fix them and solve the problems in cooperation and complete transparency with users? This willingness means that today, there are almost no gaps in knowledge and problems with the dashboard, and there is no imprecise information. It’s not just a matter of confidence, but also a matter of precision of the data on which policy decisions are made. The dashboard is the basis for many decisions for example – shortening quarantines, moving from PCR testing to antigen testing, when to stop the ‘green passport,’ etc.”

‘A basis for thousands of studies’

Beyond the smash hit the dashboard became in Israel, it has also become an ongoing source for researchers and the media. “Since the beginning of the pandemic there have been 120 million hits on the dashboard, coming from a mixture of apps and webpages, along with global dashboards that monitor information from all over the world, like the site at Johns Hopkins and others, which obtained their information in real time from our dashboard,” Kaiser says. “We see hits from almost everywhere in the world, and as far as we know, there are thousands of studies everywhere in the world based on the data on our dashboard.”

A medical worker administers a coronavirus vaccine shot.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Why is Israel’s dashboard such an attraction to researchers worldwide?

“The first reason is the quality of the data: Since the health care system in Israel is relatively concentrated and there are only four HMOs, 11 government hospitals, 14 Clalit HMO hospitals, etc. – almost all the institutions are on the same network, and we have an interface with all of them. That’s how we managed to create a network of 1,000 providers of information that updates in real time, and gives an excellent countrywide picture. And in general, the world looks at us and wants to understand our data, because Israel is interesting, both because of the structure of its health care system and because of the heterogenic nature of the population and thanks to the fact that we were pioneers in many things – in some things we were first in the world.”

The testing policy changed again and again over this period, and now there are many people who make do with a home test, and you don’t know about them. Doesn’t that hurt your ability to present a reliable and unified picture?

“It certainly says there’s a decline in sensors and a lack of data. We know only what we can know, and that is certainly connected to the testing policy. We are dealing with this by adding comments with explanations in places where information is missing, and we also inserted into the dashboard a tool that shows which policy was instituted and when, so we can see what happened as a result of that policy.

“We constantly have our finger on the pulse. The sixth wave is beginning to rise now, so it’s likely that in the coming weeks we’ll see an interest in certain subjects – for example, information that will allow a deeper analysis of the seriously ill patients or data on recurring illness, people who have contracted the virus a second or a third time, and when they were last sick.”

What’s next? Are you planning additions and improvements to the dashboard?

“Certainly. The dashboard was born of the coronavirus, but since we understand the critical importance of transparency to the public, we want to expand the dashboard and export all the relevant data to the public. The first thing that will go live soon is a translation of the dashboard into English. That will be a significant change, because the exposure will greatly increase.

“But it’s not only about the coronavirus – we can put anything in the Health Ministry on the dashboard, like service surveys, quality indexes, things that are on the site today, but in a format that is not readable and accessible enough.”

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