When the pandemic began, Noah Little created a website to track the increase in the number of cases. Today, it is one of the most viewed sources of COVID information in Canada.
There was not a single case of COVID-19 in his home province of Saskatchewan when Noah Little began collecting data on the pandemic on March 8, 2020. With only 67 cases across Canada, there were no provincial or national scorecards showing the latest figures for cases, hospitalizations or deaths. So Little, then a sophomore studying biomedical neuroscience at the University of Saskatchewan, “put something together” to start tracking. And almost overnight, his website, COVID-19 Tracker Canada, “got a little more popular,” he recalls.
That is an understatement. By June 2021, it averaged 3.4 million visits a week and had become so essential in determining how Canada was doing that Our World in Data, a site that collects numbers on the pandemic from around the world, began to use data from Little’s site in their own vaccination and hospitalization charts. “If you Google ‘vaccines in Canada,’ it’s our data,” says Little, noting that the search engine uses charts from Our World in Data.
Little is part of a circle of ad hoc groups and individuals that filled the gulf of pandemic data created by a mosaic of government sources across the country. Its constantly updated statistics, combined with elegant interactive charts and the ability to automatically download updates, set your website apart. Trevor Tombe, an economics professor at the University of Calgary, uses it for his own popular chart of Canada’s vaccine efforts. “The data can be as detailed as you want, but if it is difficult to access and use, then it is of little value,” explains Tombe. “The Noah data is detailed, timely and accessible. It is brilliant.”
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It is also a lot of work. Little, with the help of a small group of volunteers, collects the data manually and strives to publish it as soon as it is available. (The group explored scraping solutions, but they proved unworkable, often failing when governments modified the website’s encoding.) To get vaccine data for Ontario, for example, Little visits the websites of all 34 public health units in the province. Updating the website takes a total of three to four hours each day, which is divided into many, many 10-minute chunks. “I’m organized where it matters,” says Little.
And he’s been doing it all from the kitchen island of his family’s home in Saskatoon. “I like to work with noise and activity,” he says. “It helps me stay on track.” Little lives with his parents, a younger brother who is in high school and one of his two older sisters, who is in law school. His equipment: a laptop and an iPad.
Even while spending hours on the site, Little continued with his college courses. The online structure gave him the flexibility to plan his academic work around provincial COVID update schedules, leaving the afternoons generally free for course work or site updates. Still, the daily grind of the website meant something had to give. So, while teaching piano and working for the summer, he didn’t have time to reinforce his medical school application with research paper or published articles. But he has no regrets: “At the end of the day, you have to weigh the pros and cons, and this is definitely a pro and a win.”
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His family understands the importance of the real-world aspects of his work, although Little admits that the work of updating the site can be a useful excuse, especially when it comes time to exercise the family’s Bernese Mountain Dog: “Oh, Someone needs to walk Sophie? I can’t because I’m doing Saskatchewan, ”she laughs.
Along the way, he learned the importance of consistency and perseverance. In the summer of 2020, even when the number of cases was low, Little kept updating the data, including on his sister’s wedding day. It expanded the site and launched a vaccine tracker as soon as doses started arriving in Canada last December. Traffic skyrocketed as Canadians, eager for good news, continued to check vaccine statistics. Little finally added a donate button to help cover his costs of around $ 400 a month, and now he receives enough contributions that he no longer pays out of pocket to maintain the site.
“At first I wanted to do everything myself,” he says. “If I had to do it again, I would have accepted more offers of help sooner.” A key offer came from Andrew Thong, 36, a design technologist in Vancouver. Thong spent three weeks rebuilding the site’s back-end to handle not only the increased traffic but also the increasing amount of data. “My two younger brothers are front-line nurses,” says Thong. “So this has given me the opportunity to do a little more.”
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Little credits previous coursework involving statistics and data visualizations with helping you clarify the data and make the source of your data transparent. And he believes his newfound interest in epidemiology could influence his eventual medical career.
“A great lesson [of this process] It would be not to underestimate yourself because even if something seems completely out of reach or not something that you think you can do well, “he says,” you can probably do it if you focus on it, work hard, and have good support. “
This article appears in print in the 2022 University Rankings edition of Maclean’s magazine with the title “Data of a nation”.