Big Data for a Big Year


  • Big Data for a Big Year

Editor’s Note: In our last issue for the year, Ryan reviews the new methods we’ve used to track the course of the COVID-19 crisis and the recovery that followed. We wish all our readers a healthy and restful holiday.

The pandemic has been top of mind for everyone throughout the year, especially during its most uncertain initial stages in the spring. For me, the sad situation was illustrated by one unforgettable sight.

I have the fortune of living near a small playground. In addition to years of fun for my kids, the playground has offered an easy place for local parents to meet, even sharing an occasional Friday afternoon pizza delivery. When public health guidance mandated social distancing, our local park district closed the playground, harshly. Swings were unbolted, and climbing structures were wrapped in yellow caution tape as if they were part of a crime scene. Each day, the quiet playground reminded us all that we were living in abnormal times.

The year has led us all to seek new ways to assess the damage done by COVID-19 and to gauge how much we have recovered. Fortunately, the presence of “big data” has provided a great assist.

As we’ve said, the course of the economy depends on the course of the virus. To keep track of outbreaks, dashboards from Johns Hopkins, IMHE, Financial Times and Our World In Data have proven indispensable. The trends they show are widely repeated in news coverage: An initial breakout in the spring, a healthier summer, and then renewed outbreaks that became more serious as fall progressed. Though every region had its own experience, much of the world followed these contours.

Weekly Economic Commentary - Chart 1 - 12/22/20

As the virus spread, we stayed home, as demonstrated by our smartphones. Apple and Google posted anonymized mobility data showing where people were going—and not going. Data for nearly every country is available, and the stories are consistent across all borders. After March, we spent more time at home and less at our workplaces. Grocery stores and pharmacies saw an initial bounce of traffic when we stocked up on essentials, and have remained popular destinations ever since. As summer weather and the viral trajectory allowed, mobility data shows that we enjoyed our time outdoors, with visits to parks holding high.

Weekly Economic Commentary - Chart 2 - 12/22/20