“Please Inform Your Readers”: Best and Worst Visualizations of COVID-19

I’ve written several times about big data and visualization issues for the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • March 3: Visualizing Coronavirus Spread: Many Tools, Results Vary Widely
  • March 8: America Admits to Cooking its Numbers on Coronavirus
  • March 11: Why Big Data Missed Early Warning Signs of COVID-19

As a long-time researcher of big data security, the most important problem space always has been one of data integrity, no matter how many times the market tries to shift everyone’s focus onto confidentiality (encryption, encryption, encryption).

Why do we care about data integrity here, or more specifically about test results on a dashboard? A recent Guardian article explains the significance with a simple metaphor to tell us how badly the White House is mismanaging security science:

Trying to combat the disease without testing is like running through a forest blindfolded – it’s not going to end well.

I would only add to that we’re entering a situation where we don’t control the running part, a virus does. The speed of movement is more like being caught in an avalanche and there’s a quote that always runs through my mind when I’m on steep terrain in deep snow:

…sparse trees do nothing but provide things for you to hit as you’re swept away.

First, the Worst.

America’s CDC has one of the worst, if not the worst, dashboard in the world. I’m embarrassed to even post it here. Don’t look. It’s pointless. Until they figure out that Alaska is part of the US, I’ve given up even trying to rationalize how badly CDC is doing.

Instead, I offer you a visualization by Buzzfeed News of small data about the White House itself, which shows spread of the virus due to obvious failure in leadership (lack of proactive distancing and testing).

Next, an honorable mention in this worst category is the much celebrated Johns Hopkins University dashboard. A good attempt, yet perhaps a dangerous lesson in failures.

It sadly appears to be broken and untrustworthy while being heavily cited as a success. In the three links at the start of this blog I’ve warned about their issues before (e.g. with everyone predicting NYC being a hot spot yet their map failing to represent growing cases). I also just noticed there’s a site that depends heavily on the dashboard, which now carries a very disturbing warning at the top.

Johns Hopkins university, the source of almost all of the charts, maps and tables below, is currently experiencing technical issues. The visualizations that show cases in the US, in China and worldwide over time are therefore incorrect. If you’re using them in your articles, please inform your readers about the issue.

Dear reader (hi mom!) consider yourself informed… again.

To be fair it’s a little unfair to call it the John’s Hopkins University dashboard when a graduate student (Ensheng Dong) built it for (or with) Lauren Gardner, Professor of civil and systems engineering.

Also I have to give a shout out to Splunk. They tend to be known for over-priced proprietary data quicksand, yet they’ve very nicely announced removing their usual red flags by offering an app via github for COVID-19 data.

While we will continue to expand our app and add features, we understand that others have their own ideas of how to visualize this data. Feel free to clone this app and create your own version, or get in touch with us… to collaborate and submit data and visualizations that you think others may find useful in the publicly available app.

There’s just a little problem. Can you understand this chart?

It reminds me of this old National Geographic chart of “Vaccine Victories” but gone completely wrong.

Hate to be cynical in the face of a gift horse, yet that default visualization for a flagship dashboard is so illegible… no wonder they’re giving it away and asking for community to do better. It just maybe is why they’re pushing the general public to post ideas so they can then commercialize it and make money off pandemic volunteers. I know, too cynical.

By the way, does anyone really want to use “Day 62.5” in a chart?

Second, the Best.

Singapore is unquestionably the best national site. It baffles me why the US federal government couldn’t grab Kibana and put this together in a week at most.

The first cases come around January 20th and growth is contained. It’s all very easy to see, and they offer numerous ways to pivot the data by demographics and region over time. It’s so good, I just imagine a competent White House would have had a same or better one by end of January at the latest.

On a more local level, and also in the US, Washington State Hospital Association has posted a fascinating new map by Albert Froling using Tableau.

The “testings” donut on the lower right is my favorite widget, although it tells us 8% of tests are positive when we really should want to know what percentage of the total population has been tested and when. Anyway, the whole thing feels masterful after playing with so many bad examples.

Meanwhile the White House is attacking Washington state leaders using cheap name-calling and jealous taunts.

In remarks that many found confounding and frightening, [White House occupant] described the governor of Washington state as a “snake”, praised his own expertise and falsely claimed that anyone who wants a coronavirus test can get one. Pence was later forced to correct this.

It only stands to reason that the federal and Washington state visualizations of virus test results are complete opposite ends of the spectrum.

Third, the Tactical.

Washington Post has done a great job capturing and applying the classic contagion lessons of big data visualizations.

They’ve taken the vaccination simulations, everyone knows all too well in visualization templates and games to learn from, and made an extremely useful point about why social distancing action was needed immediately after the first cases were confirmed.

Perhaps even more importantly the above illustration shows why quarantines aren’t as effective as social distancing.

The same article shows Jan 21 was the first confirmed case and distancing wasn’t started, tests were not being done at scale, due to sheer incompetence of US government leadership. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are likely to die based on unnecessary delays and indecision by the White House.

Let’s be honest here, it’s March 14 and tests still are not done at scale. The White House only started to actually pay attention after financial markets reacted to the White House lack of reaction and everything crashed; by then it was far too late to turn back the clock and start effective early virus response. It’s such a tragedy to see very clearly in the visualization here how an easily predictable and well known exponential curve was ignored until too late.

The Washington Post sends a warning simply and clearly:

If the number of cases would continue to double every three days, there would be about a hundred million cases in the United States by May. That is math, not prophecy.

China is right now counting about 81,000 cases, for perspective.

Now let’s go back up and marvel again at how math is driving the Singapore dashboard, and the very clear and transparent fact that they have a flat line instead of an exponential curve.


Update March 15: I’ve been asked to list some of the other sites considered, beyond those already mentioned in the previous blog posts (e.g. NYT, Hong Kong). Here is a short-list for review. Let me know if you agree or disagree with my worst/best results.

Why Hoard Hand Sanitizer if Soap Works Better?

Milwaukee’s Palmolive 1920s marketing campaign about basic safety, a major shift from their late 1800s campaigns that made them world famous (an exotic cleanser suitable even for Egyptian Pharaohs).

These coronavirus quarantine times,
Definitely need some new soap rhymes.

Plenty of soap sits on shelves all around the world, yet toilet paper and hand sanitizer are disappearing far too quickly, leaving shelves barren. Why? I’d say it’s a lack of action by nations to run anti-hoarding public service announcements (e.g. it’s illegal in many places) as well as pro-soap safety slogans and information campaigns.

First of all, psychologists believe that hoarding behavior during a crisis is related to a sense of control. It’s ironic because hoarding exhibits instead both a lack of control as well as a transfer of power from the individual to large corporations known to use their fortunes to further reduce individual control.

Toilet paper in some cultures, for example, represents training people from a very early age on healthy living habits in a very inexpensive bulk retail format. Buying huge amounts of paper at low cost arguably feeds into a tribal association with a fundamental product for keeping oneself clean and safe.

Water and soap would of course be cleaner than toilet paper. Studies report how infections decrease among those who use a bidet, so a spike in bidet installations and decrease in paper would be beneficial for multiple reasons. Yet when someone starts to panic it may not be an ideal time for them to shift into thoughtful things like washing with soap at the toilet instead of paper (although data suggests it is starting to happen anyway).

Thus, hoarding is about people in faith-based toilet paper societies needing to feel in control of their cleanliness and safety if a novel virus starts to scare them. Buying rolls of paper feeds directly into feelings of something tangible being done, to avoid feelings like loss of control. It’s a primitive but effective trauma coping mechanism.

People also have developed a kind of blind faith in hand sanitizer. Unlike paper, sanitizer benefits mostly from slick marketing that manages to squeeze popular perception of control into an unremarkable pump bottle or box of tissues. Sadly, on that note, the marketing often is entirely deceptive and unsafe because it doesn’t work at all as advertised:

The front of the package doesn’t mention that it’s alcohol-free; the back includes small print that lists benzalkonium chloride as the active ingredient and the label “alcohol-free formula.” Nowhere on the Amazon product listing does it say it’s alcohol-free.

Here’s another take on it from Supramolecular chemistry expert Palli Thordarson who tweeted out why soap with water is superior:

The scientist went on to explain that disinfectants, wipes, gels and creams containing alcohol – hand sanitisers – are effective at killing bacteria, but don’t break down the structure of the virus. […] The Tweets come after Dr Norman Swan also declared soap was better on ABC’s 7.30 program.

There is no real comfort or any advantages to the sanitizers only more risks (such as toxic additives and false advertising) versus other known safer and more effective options such as soap and water.

One of the crazier things I hear, for example, is that hand sanitizer is more “convenient” because you don’t always have water with you. This of course begs the question of why you can have hand sanitizer with you if you can’t carry a small bottle of water?

Another thing I hear is that hand sanitizer saves time. And that is exactly the problem with it. Doing a 20 second minimum of soap and water washing is what makes it so effective. Going faster turns out to be less effective for both, plus you often find people squirting sanitizer multiple times and rubbing for 20 seconds anyway.

More to the point, being out and about in the real world with exposure to things like dirt, dust and oils makes sanitizer even less effective versus hand washing with soap. But again, hoarding is evidence of people seeking feelings of control through retail therapy, not about them making smart life choices.

Business Insider did a simple experiment to show real differences between sanitizer and soap (lighter is worse, and sanitizer is the top one).

Despite these facts, sales research shows percentages are up massively for sanitizer while soap doesn’t even make the chart

Second, there is of course is another explanation. Hoarders actually are predatory criminals aiming to corner a disaster market and profit from artificial scarcity that they hope makes them rich as they slowly kill their neighbors.

Amid coronavirus fears, this couple has made more than $100,000 reselling…

Here’s another example from NYC:

“The woman ahead of me bought $2,000 worth of thermometers,” said Zapatak.

The only people really benefiting from such panic and hoarding of goods are large conglomerates like the Koch family that dominate an industry and who infamously tend to stoke panic in democracies by claiming absurdly false things like Eisenhower was a Communist.

Georgetown psychiatrist James S. Gordon describes this extreme faith-based business model unleashed upon Americans as a means to…

…reflect and amplify the least evolved parts of our biology and behavior: the remorseless struggle for survival that is the highest achievement of the reptilian part of our brain and the fears, rages and insecurities that flourish in primitive parts of our limbic system, our emotional brain.

Just remember, the more your reptilian brain parts panic buy things like sanitizer and toilet paper instead of locally sourced soap, the more a giant Koch empire is working to undermine democracy, not to mention you’re probably stockpiling a product that denies it to someone who actually needs it.

What is really on point now is a round of public service announcements and posters to remind people to stay calm and lather.

During the Great Fire of San Francisco, for example, the Oakland Mayor simply said businesses that use surge pricing during disasters (e.g. the entire predatory business concept of Lyft and Uber) would have their assets confiscated by the military.

Can you imagine modern-day hackers from the government taking Amazon’s assets under military control in order to stop rampant criminal price gouging practices?

Instead of that, several states (at least California, Washington and New York) had to direct Amazon to block gouging crimes based on hoarders. New York also committed to producing 100,000 gallons per week of it’s own public version of hand sanitizer, safer than the misleading commercial/private labels, for distribution wherever Amazon’s hoarders had attacked.

With the current absence of leadership ability in federal government on this topic, perhaps Amazon security staff could take it upon themselves to hack into anyone detected on their platform using gouging practices and seize assets for Amazon to redirect/redistribute. I suppose that’s like a man-in-the-middle platform attack by the platform itself, as hoarders would get no money in a sale and the product would be intercepted when it shipped. Probably too much legal red tape and coordination among private sector executives for that to work.

But seriously, law enforcement could be sent to these criminal-minded hoarding caches to seize their ill-gotten assets and redistribute via Amazon to vulnerable populations:

…they watched the list of Amazon’s most popular searches crowd with terms like “Purell,” “N95 mask” and “Clorox wipes,” sellers said, they did what they had learned to do: Suck up supply… Mr. Colvin does not believe he was price gouging. While he charged $20 on Amazon for two bottles of Purell that retail for $1 each, he said people forget that his price includes his labor, Amazon’s fees… “I’m not looking to be in a situation where I make the front page of the news for being that guy who hoarded 20,000 bottles of sanitizer that I’m selling for 20 times what they cost me.”

That’s right, Mr. Colvin believes his fellow citizens deserve to be gouged or dead because illegal hoarding isn’t free for him (just think of the legal fees alone to stay out of jail and avoid angry mobs) and Amazon wants a cut of his hoarding. Perfect example of market failure and why privatized systems can be the worst thing during times when societies need collaboration and cooperation the most.

One doctor, in a desperate appeal to get people to stop hoarding and start donating instead, explained it like this:

If doctors and nurses die because of inadequate protection, all the toilet paper and dried pasta in the world won’t save you.

There are many other examples of hoarding behavior in history of war (coronavirus has very similar dynamics as nations going to war) and how the hoarders were dealt with, so it’s a wonder nobody in government anywhere seems to be creating modern versions of these types of public service campaign posters.

2008 U.S. Report of the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism

Here’s the quick summary of the 2008 Report of the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism (PDF of full report):

RECOMMENDATION 1: The United States should undertake a series of mutually reinforcing domestic measures to … enhance the nation’s capabilities for rapid response to prevent biological attacks from inflicting mass casualties.

See also a National Pandemic Strategy document published by the Homeland Security Council in 2006: Implementation Plan for Pandemic Influenza

Three human influenza pandemics occurred in the 20th century, each resulting in illness in approximately 30 percent of the world population and death in 0.2 percent to 2 percent of those infected. Using this historical information and current models of disease transmission, it is projected a modern pandemic could lead to the deaths of 200,000 to 2 million U.S. citizens.

Learn new languages while practicing COVID-19 safety

File “Aviation Without Borders USA: Integrated Humanitarian Solutions” (AWB-USA) under safety awareness campaigns. Free posters have been translated into 21 languages and describe how to help prevent the spread of COVID-19

Our posters provide basic hygiene and preventative directions in as many languages as possible, for all age groups irrespective of race, religion or geographic location.

Download them all, hang above your wash stations and practice translation while staying safe. Nothing will slow down your hand washing like trying to learn a new language.

Why Big Data Missed Early Warning Signs of COVID-19

Back in September 2014 there was an excellent article on FP called “Why Big Data Missed Early Warning Signs of Ebola“, which seems more relevant today than ever:

It’s an inspirational story that is a common refrain in the big data world — sophisticated computer algorithms sift through millions of data points and divine hidden patterns indicating a previously unrecognized outbreak that was then used to alert unsuspecting health authorities and government officials. The problem is that this story isn’t quite true: By the time HealthMap monitored its very first report, the Guinean government had actually already announced the outbreak and notified the WHO.

The FP article goes on to clarify the problem was never a lack of social commentary to monitor, which legitimately came early and wasn’t even noticed by big data systems anyway. The problem was that official channels of news were downplayed by purveyors of “artificial intelligence” (AI) to take all the credit by simply repeating those very same official channels of news.

Thus, contrary to the narrative that data mining led to an intelligence coup, HealthMap’s earliest signals on March 14 were actually simply detections of this official government announcement in French. Despite all of the attention and hype paid to social media as a sensor network over human society, mainstream media still plays a critical role as an information stream in many areas of the world. This is not to say that there were not far earlier signals manifested in the myriad social conversations among medical workers and citizens in the region, only that it was not these indicators that HealthMap — or anyone else — detected.

My presentations in 2014 and after would often cite this example as a failure of big data, as well as the Google flu prediction engine crashing and burning from integrity failures.

Most recently at the 2019 RSA Conference for example, I presented this story of failed Ebola warnings as one of the top ten security disasters of ML.

My presentations since 2014 also have included references to insurance companies running very secretive big data systems in the cloud to model pandemics — not to mention chemical weapons — spreading in America (since at least 2008 federal security researchers have said a pandemic is a greater threat to the US than nuclear attack). Did you know the insurance rates of a commercial property may have several pandemic models in its estimated risk? Perhaps I will dig up some of my old 2014 slides and post here again to illustrate better.

One true “in the trenches of big data technology” experience I used to like to present, for example, was how one very large insurance company got a phone call from Amazon demanding some kind of formal advance notice before its cloud services were lit up for pandemic simulations. 2014 was a time when the whole of Amazon’s cloud simply couldn’t handle the loads of powerful and real pandemic prediction models based on truly big data.

A lot has changed since then, although some things have not. Let’s talk now about COVID-19.

On the plus side a pandemic-prediction technology company founded during the Ebola crisis has recently claimed success in the early warning game:

…December 30, 2019, BlueDot, a Toronto-based startup that uses a platform built around artificial intelligence, machine learning and big data to track and predict the outbreak and spread of infectious diseases, alerted its private sector and government clients about a cluster of “unusual pneumonia” cases happening around a market in Wuhan, China. That was the first recognition of the novel coronavirus that has come to be known as COVID-19.

Before looking at this tall claim more carefully, note the list of “first places” in the same story:

In the case of COVID-19, the system flagged articles in Chinese that reported 27 pneumonia cases associated with a market that had seafood and live animals in Wuhan. In addition to the alert, BlueDot correctly identified the cities that were highly connected to Wuhan using things like global airline ticketing data to help anticipate where the infected might be traveling. The international destinations that BlueDot anticipated would have the highest volume of travelers from Wuhan were: Bangkok, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Taipei, Phuket, Seoul, and Singapore. In the end, 11 of the cities at the top of their list were the first places to see COVID-19 cases.

Here they are again:

  • Bangkok in Thailand
  • Hong Kong
  • Tokyo in Japan
  • Taipei in Taiwan
  • Phuket in Thailand
  • Seoul in South Korea
  • Singapore

In reality the initial confirmed spread outside China went to the US as well as Taiwan, Thailand, Japan and South Korea.

Now look at the lines on the following Tomas Pueyo graph of infection rates from his post called “Act Today or People Will Die“.

Source: Tomas Pueyo

If you squint you may be able to see the cities listed at the top of the BlueDot list are near to flat on the bottom of the chart, unless they’re not on the chart at all because too few cases exist.

Countries like South Korea, US and France are rocketing upwards. As the author explains without mincing words, there’s an obvious causation for the difference in rates:

South Korea cases have exploded, but have you wondered why Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand or Hong Kong haven’t? All of them were hit by SARS in 2003, and all of them learned from it.

SARS had a huge impact in 37 countries. The ones that setup national pandemic command centers, getting prepared for the next virus, are showing direct benefits. Their use of big data has been to enhance preparedness by enabling testing and containment routines, best exemplified by the Singapore public dashboard.

Meanwhile in America, the lessons from the spread of a deadly virus seem to have been mostly ignored or reversed by the current administration, leading the country towards a repeat of tragic American history.

It’s time we go back to 1981 when American scientists initially noticed a new virus because unusual levels of the uncommon drug Pentamidine were being prescribed. That kind of uptick in consumption is a text-book early warning sign for big data systems to easily understand.

However it took another five long years under President Ronald Reagan before there was even a statement made about deaths from human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that had been flagged in 1981. FIVE YEARS and 25,000 dead Americans happened before the President started to focus on HIV. There was open ignorance and dismissal from 1982 to 1987 that thousands of deaths from a virus even could be worthy of public concern. Sound familiar?

Reagan literally laughed in press conferences asking about citizens dying (video footage definitely not to be missed) as fatality numbers were read to him. The President also refused to let the national Center for Disease Control (CDC) communicate or be transparent about how to stop the spread.

Similarly, in the the current anti-science White House, a CDC response center was closed and communication shut down about viruses despite intelligence offices formally predicting a coming pandemic. In fact, the director of offices warning a virus would be a real national security concern was instead fired for fairly open political reasons.

It’s probably worth noting at this point that the current CDC director appointed in 2018 is infamous for his mismanagement and profiteering during the AIDS crisis, not to mention having no experience in directing a public health agency.

Redfield’s primary qualification for appointment seems to be his close association with extremist religious anti-science organizations. “Americans for a Sound AIDS/HIV Policy” (ASAP) spread propaganda that AIDS was “God’s judgment” against Americans who deserved to die because they were believed to be a result of single-parent households with weakened patriarchal values (weakened male domination over women).

A decision to slow down a SARS-CoV-2 testing in America may be related to Redfield looking for ways to corner and profit from test kit distribution channels, rather than jump right into big data acquisition/analysis or deploy tests kits ready to go (available from China since January 17th and openly distributed by WHO since February 6th, as exemplified by Singapore and Korea test data).

The real value, even to a corrupt huckster, should been seen as analytic platforms for data accumulation and subsequent analysis. That opportunity is many magnitudes greater than personal profit he may have salivated over when scheming about cornering test kit markets.

There’s no proof yet of this level of corruption causing the CDC test kit delays, it just seems incredibly likely given Redfield’s short-lived CDC predecessor Fitzgerald was forced to resign due to corruption, when it was reported she was investing in tobacco as grants went to a company where she and her husband held stock.

Perhaps it wasn’t corruption, though. It also could have been the kind of incompetence seen with CDC doing a huge drawdown in China, removing two-thirds of its experts in the past two years. Instead of long-term professional, localized scientific relationships designed to instantly collaborate on “the next SARS”, someone in America instead cooked up a concept of just-in-time teams for short-term pandemic expeditions.

The total and abject failure of this information gathering model was clear on January 29th when US officials personally pleaded with China to let their scientists back in.

…our hope is that we could get directly involved in China to be able to review…

On top of Redfield having learned the exact wrong lessons from America’s HIV response on the way to being appointed head of CDC during the current pandemic, there’s also the fact that Mike Pence was appointed to lead nationwide response despite his own infamous mismanagement of HIV.

In sum, America’s leadership “team have been dishonest about the coronavirus” spreading lies and sowing confusion just like Reagan did in the 1980s with AIDS, on top of enabling healthcare market fraud that inflates business profits while giving no coverage for scientific testing of coronavirus.

The lesson from the HIV crisis for current U.S. politicians therefore seems to have been the very opposite of preparation. There has been no hard drive to get a national command center for immediate pandemic test and containment, let alone any plans to update from Ebola-era mistakes to the latest and greatest big data technology (although they did just put out a feeler request for new investments).

Let’s be frank here, to some the only lesson of AIDS/HIV was… the American President can get away with indifference if not negligence, playing golf and refusing to lift a finger until it’s obvious why literally tens of thousands of Americans needlessly are dying on his watch.

BlueDot is notably Canadian.

So let’s go back to details of that BlueDot announcement for a minute. FP complained in 2014 that AI really meant just reading regular news channels and trying to take credit for it as novel. The core to that long quoted passage above, starting this blog post, is here:

…mainstream media still plays a critical role as an information stream in many areas of the world. This is not to say that there were not far earlier signals manifested in the myriad social conversations among medical workers and citizens in the region, only that it was not these indicators that HealthMap — or anyone else — detected…

That is quite literally what happened in China again this time. A detailed JAMA graph lays it out by day to clearly show a timeline of social conversations and then news stories. Click to enlarge.

Source: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2762130

The text boxes are basically this:

  • Dec 25: //not on JAMA timeline// The head of gastroenterology (Lu Xiaohong) at Wuhan City Hospital No. 5 says conversations were on disease spreading among medical workers treating a group of new pneumonia patients; several Chinese news outlets release reports from anonymous labtech claiming 87% similarity to SARS
  • Dec 26: 4 unusual pneumonia cases noticed in HICWM Hospital by a Dr. Zhang
  • Dec 27: Dr. Zhang reports unusual cases to government CDC (later review of records suggest as many 180 cases, probably not realized at this time)
  • Dec 28-29: 3 more pneumonia cases in HICWM
  • Dec 30: //not on JAMA timeline// Wuhan Central Hospital’s emergency department director (Ai Fen) uploads diagnostic record to WeChat, without knowing contagion rate
  • Dec 30: government starts active case finding in Wuhan City
  • Dec 30: //not on JAMA timeline// Wuhan Central Hospital ophthalmologist (Li Wenliang) mentions quarantined emergency patients to a WeChat group, indicating SARS-like virus
  • Dec 30: //not on JAMA timeline// Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases (ProMED) broadcasts English translation of Wuhan Municipal Health Committee RFI: “urgent notice on the treatment of pneumonia of unknown cause”
  • Dec 31: Wuhan health officials formally release news to China’s national health officials including their CDC and the global WHO

And on Dec 30th BlueDot claimed credit for being the first to notice. This is quite exactly what FP was complaining about in 2014, when a machine reads the news and says it was early while being on the same timeline as an existing human global notification system.

To be fair, BlueDot was right there on the clock and neither claims AI to be a cure-all, nor that they were doing something amazing other than reading the news others were publishing. As they put it in their PR they “flagged articles in Chinese that reported 27 pneumonia cases associated with a market”.

Technically speaking that reference means BlueDot either read December 15th early reports about 27 cases (five days later the total number of confirmed cases had more than doubled to 60) or were repeating a Chinese government’s official December 30th announcement of 27 cases of viral pneumonia being investigated. It appears to be the latter.

While the system worked as designed, it still gets classified as a failure under the 2014 definition of high expectations for phrases like big data or AI. Local news and social channels reported the outbreak of pneumonia with SARS-like potential. Then people or machines both read that and flagged it as early warning signs of another SARS-like incident.

Reading newspapers around the world and reporting them on the same day was hot new technology of 1920. Hard to call this really newsworthy itself in 2020. As I said before, a lot has changed, while some has not. I wish BlueDot didn’t call their warnings early, and instead called them inexpensive or less complicated.

Nonetheless, if we allow the bar to be lowered to allow heavily funded startups to succeed and be measured for easier finish lines, BlueDot did indeed do what they advertised by reading news about SARS-like pneumonia as it was published and then repeating it for others to also read.

I’m not just pointing out a lowered bar has risk because I want to be captain obvious who says be wary of PR from startups. I actually believe we should hold the bar higher for them. There are technical solutions that really could give early warning signs that are ahead of the local reporters themselves, perhaps even before social conversations reach the reporters.

That is both why I’ve been writing my new book, and also is the focus of software I’m working on now. We can do better with big data technology, and we will.

US Awards Highest Civilian Award to 1980s “Ambassador of Apartheid”

Supposedly the Medal of Freedom allows the occupant of the White House to award “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors”.

In the latest news, however none of those concepts seem to apply to a golf player named Gary Player who is set to be awarded this supreme award. The primary explanation of his selection seems to be in this sentence:

Trump played with… Player last fall at his private club in northern Virginia.

Who is Player? What is he known for besides playing private club golf with someone in the White House?

The African Book Publishing Record (Volume 34, Issues 1-4 – Page 13) says he was

…often used by Pretoria as a virtual roving ambassador of apartheid…

Selling Apartheid: South Africa’s Global Propaganda War” explains this in more detail on page 52:

“Selling Apartheid: South Africa’s Global Propaganda War”, by Ron Nixon, p. 52

By 1981 Player was widely confronted for his ongoing propagandist role promoting apartheid rule, according to “Off the court” by Arthur Ashe and Neil Amdur, page 147:

Gary Player, a South African, says, “I’m a golfer, not a politician,” when the media asks for his views. He’s a hypocrite. I would like Gary Player to address himself to the question of whether he favors apartheid or not — a simple yes or no would do…

This came as Player responded to sanctions against apartheid in 1981 by establishing his “Million Dollar Challenge” tournament in Sun City and inviting Americans to invest. When I say responded to sanctions, here is what Bishop Tutu said (quoted in the 5-20-1981 “Statement to International Conference on Sanctions Against South Africa”); the environment where Player conceived his new event was clear:

Those who invest in South Africa should please do so with their eyes open. They must not delude themselves that they are doing anything for the benefit of blacks. Please let us at least get rid of this humbug. They must understand that they are buttressing one of the most vicious systems since Nazism.

Perhaps it should have been called the Most Vicious System Since Nazism Challenge?

In 1987 Player was still being condemned for breaking boycotts of apartheid, internationally known for his continued high-profile role promoting white supremacist government. He is listed by name in the “Centre Against Apartheid, Department of Political and Security Council Affairs” report on page 11:

United Nations Centre Against Apartheid, Department of Political and Security Council Affairs, 1987

The Guardian provides a succinct note on Player’s reputation over time, in a 2007 story about Nelson Mandela distancing himself.

Mr Player is not known for his sensitivity to the plight of the downtrodden. He described apartheid South Africa as “maligned, misunderstood, pilloried” after he was heckled while playing abroad.

He was closely tied to the ruling National party during the 1970s as a member of a clique that launched a pro-apartheid newspaper with the help of illegal government funding.

He has also been criticized for failing to speak up on behalf of his country’s best-known golfer of Indian descent, Sewsunker “Papwa” Sewgolum, who was forced in 1963 to stand in the rain to accept a major trophy because he wasn’t allowed inside the racially exclusive Durban Country Club. Mr Player later said he welcomed Mr Sewgolum playing in South African tournaments because he brought “colour” to golf.

Adding confusion to the history, is Player’s own version, where he sees himself as a change agent (claiming in 1961 he asked for Mandela to be set free although not jailed for life until 1964, and that in 1971 he formally asked for apartheid in sport to end). Compare that to his habit of using Mandela’s voice for non-change, pushing the program of reconciliation instead of equality after apartheid.

  • CBC interview: “I said, ‘I have so much admiration for you.’ I said to him, ‘It is remarkable, how can you not have revenge?'”
  • TimesLive interview: “I said ‘Mr Mandela you must hate white people and have tremendous amount revenge’. “He said ‘to the contrary‚ I have no hatred and no revenge…”

He also complained in 1993, quoted in “Golf’s Global Ambassador from South Africa“, that as someone from a “brainwashed” white supremacist background he found it unfair to be expected to change and oppose apartheid if American golfers weren’t facing opposition to the Vietnam War.

“Gary Player: Golf’s Global Ambassador from South Africa…” By John Boyette, p. 39

Instead of explaining why this illogical whataboutism by Player is so morally bankrupt, perhaps I only need to point out how the official history of Pebble Beach indeed recounts 1972 opposition to the Vietnam War in the face of Nicklaus and what he thought of it:

“Pebble Beach: The Official Golf History”, by Hotelling Neal Dost Joanne, Neal Hotelling, p. 190

Overall, while Player clearly has tried for decades to rehabilitate his image after gladly becoming the internationally condemned face of an apartheid regime, later acting as if he had actually wanted to be a change agent… he also very much became a fan of weak reconciliation after apartheid ended, preserving white economic domination and losing the support of even Mandela.

Seems like a “nice guy” opportunist ambassador who has been more than willing to go along with whatever regime or leader can make him rich quickest.

Just not seeing his qualification for such an award. As Maria Farrell explained recently:

The moral hazard is clear; why would anyone do the right thing from the beginning when they can take the money, have their fun, and then, when the wind changes, convert their status and relative wealth into special pleading and a whole new career?

I guess the next question, given his profile, is whether he was involved in the NRA campaign to funnel guns defeating the UN boycott, or involved in Ronald Reagan’s aborted Seychelles coup involving golfers of the “Ancient Order of Froth Blowers”.

Those gun-running high-dollar events fit perfectly and could at least explain the white nationalist White House today rewarding him for some long clandestine security angle. He may have been playing a role to help massage American business interests through and around the global apartheid boycotts (per the Nixon-era white nationalist “Tar Baby” foreign policy as described in 1976).

Amazon Secretly Researching How to Eliminate Sick Workers

I’m being told a hidden science laboratory has been revealed deep inside an American corporation, tasked with finding a final solution to the problem of staff productivity loss from illness.

As weird and twisted as this may sound for a national healthcare system to be so deficient that a self-interested empire builder has an illness laboratory, it’s entirely true.

Amazon is working on a cure for the common cold in a years-long, top secret effort called “Project Gesundheit,” according to three people familiar with the effort.

It’s secretive because a search to cure the common cold would obviously make everyone very sick if they found out, right? And these people leaking details definitely are not trying to slow or stop its progress before it’s too late.

I mean of course Amazon’s CEO dresses like the villain in an Indiana Jones movie and calls his secret research to eliminate unfit workers Gesundheit

“Deadly Medicine” traces the history of a systematic effort by Nazis to eliminate the “unfit”. Source: DW

America Admits to Cooking its Numbers on Coronavirus

A tragic day in America as the White House occupants have openly stated they’re actively manipulating coronavirus case numbers for political reasons.

…[He is as or more] concerned about the political fallout of the growing number of coronavirus cases in the United States as he is about how those cases should be handled. […] {His] concern is just that numeric increase, a concern that has no other apparent root besides his insistence that his administration is keeping that particular number low.

Sounds like an obsession with appearance, and no concern for people who will die. In other words it suggests numbers everywhere are being cooked by this administration because they love power, hate science and believe gambling with other peoples’ lives has no consequences.

Some also are reporting that warnings by intelligence professionals to the White House of the pandemic risk to America… were ignored and the office leadership fired.

Stanford lecturer Brett McGurk cited a document from the office the Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats’ 2019 “Worldwide Threat Assessment,” which specifically warns of a disease like the coronavirus.

Low numbers of cases doesn’t even mean things will be better for those reporting them, since they sit on an exponential curve early in the spread cycles. Here you can see Michael Lines graphing the similarity in rates:

France replaced Japan in tracker of the 4 largest coronavirus outbreaks outside of China. US is expected next. Source: Michael Lines

Data is beautiful” on reddit offers this graph, which indicates the US being slow on response and failing to test means it is ramping quicker than countries that tested early and often:

“point of this is not to compare which country has or had more cases at a given date, but rather show how the virus propagates”

Any country having only 50 cases on the same day that Korea has 5,000, for example, could indicate Korea is 15 days ahead on a single contagion timeline. They’re linear numbers following the same line not running in parallel.

WHO has stated these three factors are most important to containment:

  1. sufficient testing to identify the infected
  2. isolation and treatment of infected once identified
  3. tracing anyone who had contact with them

So the real questions right now are what testing capability has America demonstrated relative to number of cases it has reported on the shared timeline (sufficiency), and how early did the testing start relative to the case numbers (enabling isolation and treatment during spread to contacts).

The answers are that America’s federal government not only is intentionally cooking its numbers to artificially keep numbers reported low, it’s also been dangerously slow to deploy test kits that would be able to prevent thousands of deaths in America.

…the country’s true capacity for testing has not been made clear to its residents. This level of obfuscation is unexpected in the United States, which has long been a global leader in public-health transparency. The figures we gathered suggest that the American response to the coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19, has been shockingly sluggish, especially compared with that of other developed countries. The CDC confirmed eight days ago that the virus was in community transmission in the United States—that it was infecting Americans who had neither traveled abroad nor were in contact with others who had. In South Korea, more than 66,650 people were tested within a week of its first case of community transmission, and it quickly became able to test 10,000 people a day. The United Kingdom, which has only 115 positive cases, has so far tested 18,083 people for the virus.

That’s a disaster, and it seems to be an intentional one. The US government is likely to get a lot of Americans killed. Already confirmed cases have exploded after the White House literally said (not a joke) that we should expect cases soon to go to zero.

Appointing Pence, who infamously bungled his state’s AIDS crisis, is only going to make the numbers games worse (like most White House appointments so far, including the newly appointed CDC head infamous for believing a virus is God’s punishment).

In Seattle, a hot spot of the virus where a dozen people already have died, only about 100 tests were done across an area with greater than 3 million people.

It’s truly bizarre to run America completely blind like this, unless you think back to how badly President Reagan infamously intentionally delayed and suppressed national virus numbers and response while thousands were dying.

To be clear, scientists today refer to the COVID-19 a cross between AIDS and SARS. That makes it especially important to reflect on an American President in the 1980s who intentionally hamstrung the CDC and blocked scientific response to AIDS.

I’ve written about this before, in context of the “executive privilege” stain from anti-science extremists in American politics (including present Supreme Court Justice Roberts, adviser to Reagan during the AIDS crisis):

One of the most prominent stains on the…Reagan administration was its response, or lack of response, to the AIDS crisis as it began to ravage American cities in the early and mid-1980s. President Reagan famously…didn’t himself publicly mention AIDS until [Sept 17th] 1985, when more than 5,000 people, most of them gay men, had already been killed by the disease.

Reagan’s first public address on the subject came even later, captured in a story about the White House turning down pleas for help from political backers with the virus.

President Reagan did not give his first major public address on the disease until …May 31, 1987 — well after the number of AIDS deaths in the United States topped 25,000.

Italy, with its high fatality numbers serves for most countries as a foreshadowing of what’s to come with COVID-19. That country is now predicting 18,000 people hospitalized in Lombardy region in a few weeks, of which they expect 3,000 will require intensive care (that’s 10 times Italy’s current capacity).

Diffusion of SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) in Italy. Source data: https://github.com/pcm-dpc/COVID-19

However, Ronald Reagan and Justice Roberts perhaps are an even better foreshadowing of what’s to come with COVID-19 in terms of America’s lack of transparency and overly political approach to healthcare, downplaying fatalities or even ignoring them altogether.

In the early stages of the AIDS virus thousands were dead and yet the Reagan Administration sat opaquely disbelieving, refusing to give scientists a voice and devaluing American lives. Cooking the numbers during that crisis quickly resulted in high fatality rates into the tens of thousands, with nearly 700,000 Americans in total killed since the virus was first reported.

The very telling history of virus response in America is captured especially well by the documentary “When AIDS Was Funny

A modern element of this can be found in the ugly section following the “At Harvard forum, three who know warn of ‘most daunting virus’ in half a century” story, where you will find comments like…

  • “…these ‘experts’ have no real evidence that what they say is true…”
  • “I support any disease that thins out the heard. Especially liberals and filthy Democrats.”
  • “I am sorry but all you Democrats and socialists will rot slowly as the disease consumes you then its time for the eternal lake of fire.”

And as Sue Turner has pointed out, here’s how the UK government used its office of information in 1987 to counteract these kinds of ignorant and harmful comments.

Big Data Visualization Errors and Revelations in Popular COVID-19 Virus Maps

Only a day or so ago I posted a list of coronavirus maps. Within 24 hours of that post, some maps changed dramatically.

The worst map (CDC) became marginally better, while the best map (nCoV2019.live) wiped its details and suddenly became one of the worst.

Neither of those changes probably mattered to most people as the one I keep hearing about from people is the Johns Hopkins CCSE, which I already warned had problems. It’s now March 5th, do you see a problem with this map?

Here’s a big clue about this empty view of New York: news stories running at the same time offer some very precise numbers that should be visible.

New York’s race to quarantine thousands of people potentially exposed to coronavirus is testing the limits of public health responses to the COVID-19 outbreak spreading across the U.S., experts said. In a matter of 48 hours, what began as one Westchester County man’s COVID-19 infection spiraled into a community quarantine disrupting countless lives [as] …disease detectives worked to track the movements of 22 confirmed cases in New York so far, authorities said Thursday.

My next step was to search for anyone reporting this in their bug tracker (nope) and then dump the Johns Hopkins CSSE map raw data. They make it available as a daily CSV.

Their data clearly has 23 cases for NY, based on a simple query.

Then I loaded their raw data into a generic Google map and here you can see the pins show up where there were none in the Johns Hopkins map:

Unless I can find someone else reporting this, I will have to file the bug. However, it also seems kind of pointless when newer and better maps are emerging.

There is nobody in the world doing a better job than Singapore right now, for example. Their Kibana-looking co.vid19.sg dashboard is phenomenally useful, with graphs of demographics as well as geolocation over time (spread).

It can be frustrating after seeing this to look at other sites and find similar demographic details missing, such as in the Hong Kong map.

One thing that really popped out for me in the Singapore data, to be clear, is how the virus spreads without symptoms and has predominantly hit men older than 18 and is disabling them for a week or two.

That combination of factors are so eerily similar to historic bio-weapon research objectives (years ago I often gave talks about Cold War attempts to weaponize rabbit-flu, and it’s in my new book about big data security)… so I’ll just say here it’s hard to not to call out the military and political implications of what the data is revealing.

For perspective, I’ve been writing pandemic response policies for years, as a function of business continuity, and the FEMA definitions that were recommended to trigger a policy used to be “…30 percent or higher in the overall population during the pandemic. Illness rates will be highest among school-aged children (about 40 percent) and decline with age…”.

In related news, either Russia is blind or they really have only 3 or 4 confirmed cases so far (according to maps by WHO, EU, Virginia, Kaiser, Esri/ArcGIS, Healthmap, and Worldometers).

Given the healthcare crisis in Russia and reports of a 75% drop in available health facilities between 2005 and 2013, such that only 20% of the population even has healthcare… I’m going to guess they’re completely blind.

Back to speaking about maps with geolocation over time, I also just noticed that NY itself has launched a great map called the NYDatabases.com site by Ithaca Journal

Unsurprisingly it gives the best representation so far of the situation in NY. My only issue is the bland color theme that makes it hard to see any hot spots on zoom. That’s still an error in my book, but I’ll gladly take a quick theme adjustment over data never making it to the map.

One thing I haven’t see anyone do yet, despite hand-washing frequency at the top of mind, is represent counter-measures in virus maps. Closest thing so far is a 2015 survey showing Italians near bottom of the list.

Hand-washing in EU

Opaque Donor Source Funds Berkeley Data Transparency Project

In most contemporary articles the future of collaboration is remote workplaces and more natural space, no longer industrial-era centralized brick-and-mortar for assembly-lines and escalators.

However, Berkeley is proudly announcing without any sense of impact at all that they will pave the forest and replace quickly shrinking natural environment in the Bay Area with yet another big building.

Berkeley student contemplates the hundreds of millions given anonymously to pave over paradise for a new building where he soon can discuss the ethics of having just paved over paradise.

What’s even more bizarre, is despite the ever-growing crowd of scientists demanding transparency in data, an absurdly large $252 million in funds to be spent on a building is being announced as… anonymous.

The Division of Computing, Data Science, and Society (CDSS) will soon have a brick-and-mortar home, thanks to an anonymous $252 million gift to seed the construction of a new “data hub” on the open space… “To ensure these systems and tools are used ethically and responsibly, experts in computing and data science must work closely with ethicists, sociologists, legal scholars and others at every step of the process,” Chayes said. “And for these collaborations to happen, these disparate groups need a space to work together.”

Is the donor Putin? Zuckerberg? A construction company, or an architecture firm?

Nothing so far about the announcement suggests anything close to being ethical or responsible. Did I miss a clue?

I wish it were an article from the Onion, but alas it is real.

the poetry of information security