The German regional health offices report all Covid-19 cases to the highest authority for disease surveillance. As these regional authorities are still poorly equipped, there are still delays in reporting. Early on, we therefore started to collect the latest infection figures directly from the German 401 districts. This is partly done manually, as there are rarely reliably structured data sources on the local websites that are suitable for a scraper. In addition, scrapers provide us with comparative figures. We are presenting these figures from the very beginning of the pandemic on our front page which is linked to our Live-Article.
The visits to our front page are growing against the trend, we explain this with the people who visit the Corona dashboard there several times a day. The detailed live-article behind it recorded millions of views in 2020. Overall, in 2020, our daily reach quadrupled at its peaks. This all contributed to our revenues increasing by half compared to the previous year – in the middle of a global crisis. The ZEIT ONLINE Covid-19 dashboard belongs to one of several sources used by Johns Hopkins University for the German numbers.
What was the hardest part of this project?
The hardest part was to coordinate the manual retrieval and collection of data several times a day and to ensure its quality. Where possible, scrapers were implemented, which have to be technically maintained when structures on external websites change. In order to be faster than the official reporting chain, we are still busy manually collecting the latest infection figures and deaths from regional sites. The constantly changing situation remains a daily challenge. And from a design perspective: how to present the detailed information in a limited space on a dashboard in a perfect way (with a very focus on mobile)?
New limit values are adopted, a gigantic vaccination campaign is launched, etc. This means not only the constant modification of the interactive live graphics, but also permanent dialogue with the authorities and, most importantly, the constant explanation and classification of the figures for our readers.
What can others learn from this project?
The pandemic demands up-to-date information, which is requested by our readership. Based on that data, political decisions such as lockdowns are also made. ZEIT ONLINE ‘s data-team quickly realised that it was difficult for the higher-level government agencies in Germany to deliver regional data in time. An important insight: we data journalists should not be despondent in such a situation, but should be aware of our strengths, which we are trained for over the years in many important and time-critical projects. We had many players and different roles in the project. Our learning: You need one place to gather all the self collected data and compare it to official data. Parallel to the collection of data, an additional information and early warning system has been built up over time. All team members receive automated notifications via Slack when new data has been published externally and made available. In addition, the own figures are compared with other data sources and warning messages are sent via Slack if there are significant deviations. In this way, errors can be found quickly. In addition, dramatic regional changes can be quickly picked up on editorially. Another learning: It is not enough to focus on your nation. A pandemic is an inernational challenge. That is why our readers demand international comparative figures. It is essential that these figures are published directly next to national figures.