Managing in the age of Coronavirus demands social distancing, containment and a healthy dose of data transparency. Part 2 in a series

One of the things I love about working with data is that it does not lie. 

While you might not like what data tells you, you can at least take comfort in the fact you know the truth. With trustworthy data in hand, you are prepared to make the best possible decisions, as difficult as they might be.

Problems can arise, however, when you don’t have access to data you need. Either because someone has not made an effort to find it, or worse yet, someone has it but will not make it available. When that happens – when you lack data visibility, insight or transparency – you run the risk of making bad or even dangerous decisions.

Yesterday the Danish government implemented strict measures to control the spread of COVID-19 throughout the country. Borders are now locked down. Schools and a broad swath of institutions and businesses are closed. And that is really just the start. What happens next is only partly predictable.

They say the truth can set you free, or perhaps not

While on one hand I have to feel positive that this will all be in the best interest of our country, the truth is – and for those of us in the data business, truth is what matters – well; we don’t know the truth. And that is the problem facing citizens of our country, and of many other countries around the world. 

The decision to enact these stringent measures cannot have been easy to make. There was of course some data available that must have raised the alarm levels to the point where strong action seemed mandatory. I realized this myself when I looked back at the article I wrote at the start of this week on managing in the age of Coronavirus, Global Organization. Global Health Crisis. Provincial Thinking?

At the time, there were 113 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the country. As of this writing, we’re heading towards 850. The growth is both astounding and frightening. Swift and decisive action was clearly in order…

The danger lurks in the data shadows… 

Data like that can make you think drastic measures of some kind are clearly in order, even if they require substantial impositions on personal freedoms. This recent piece, which helps makes sense of a tremendous amount of data that is available and which puts an emphasis on “flattening the curve,” puts much of that into perspective. 

But it is visibility into the data that is missing – what some call the shadow figures – that makes the decision to shutter much of the country, without equally strong measures to protect against the resulting economic tsunami this action will create, so truly concerning. 

You see, what we don’t know is how many people in Denmark are already infected, because we haven’t done the testing required to make that information available. 

If we did, we might see that, rather than simply shut the borders in order to accelerate the impact of social distancing and associated containment strategies, and much of the economy along with it, to keep the infected out, it might have made more sense to focus on testing the people who are already here to see how many people are carrying the virus with them already. As well as start to prepare a economic impact plan to protect vulnerable businesses and their employees, while also providing an incentive for larger and more financially stable companies to strongly support the government’s actions.

Regarding testing, while many around the world have been critical of what some called a slow and provincial response to the virus in the US, the announcement by the Trump administration to dramatically accelerate testing while also introducing a range of programs to help insulate small businesses, and enlisting support from corporate America, is a positive step. Only by coming to grips with the true scale of the problem, by closing the gap between the known and the unknown – the truth and the shadows – can an effective solution be put into effect.

Trusted decisions demand data transparency

At this point, many people might say that what is done is done and there is no turning back. That may be true for the short term. But long-term, we as a people, both here in Denmark, and throughout the world, need to think very carefully about what we are doing to be sure we are taking the right steps.

It is essential we all realize that decisions made today, and in the days ahead, will impact our lives for years, or decades, to come. Without additional insight into data revealing where the virus lives now we can’t truly understand what we are dealing with. 

Beyond that, without simultaneously putting a financial backup plan into place to prevent the potentially crippling, counterproductive effects of closed borders, we risk amplifying the impact of COVID-19 to an even greater magnitude. Strict social distancing and containment strategies are obviously in order. But the economic impact of isolationism is hard to forecast, and too important to leave to chance. Without more data and associated transparency, we don’t know what kind of truth the future holds.

Decision making isn’t always easy. Whether you are leading a family, a company or an entire country, there are constant choices to be made that will change outcomes and lives. Decisions like that can never be taken lightly. Intuition and experience are fine sometimes. But in more cases than not, decision makers need to trust the information at hand to be sure it is correct. 

But when information, insight and transparency are lacking, and the balance between truth and fiction disappears, we put ourselves, and everyone around us, at even graver risk.

Let us hope that in the days to come, data transparency can be the bridge we need to achieve our collective objectives. The future depends on it.

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