Public institutions rely on external data sources and analysis to guide policymaking and intervention. Through our AI for Good initiative, we support organizations that provide such inputs with our technical expertise. We were recently approached by IIASA to create a dashboard to visualize COVID-19 data. This builds on our previous collaboration, which had us deliver a decision-making tool for natural disaster risk planning in Madagascar. In this article, we provide an example of how to help policymakers navigate the ocean of available data with dashboards that turn these data into actionable information.
Data is useful information when it creates value…or saves lives
The current pandemic emergency has put an unprecedented strain on both public health services and policymaking bodies around the world. Government action has been constrained in many cases by limited access to equipment and personnel. Adequate policymaking can help to coordinate the emergency relief effort effectively, make better use of scarce resources, and prevent such shortages in the future. This, however, requires access to secure, timely, and accurate information.
Governments commission various public bodies and research institutes to provide such data both for planning and coordinating the response. For instance, in the UK, the government commissioned the National Health Service (NHS) to build a data platform to consolidate a number of data providers into one single source. However, for the data to be useful it must be presented in a way that is consistent with the demands of an emergency situation. Therefore, the NHS partnered with a number of tech companies to visualize the data in dashboards and to provide deeper insights. Raw data, regardless of its quality, is not useful information until it is understood in a way that creates value – or in this case informs action that could save lives.
IIASA approached us to support them in making their COVID-19 data and indicators more useful to policymakers. The institute’s research is used by policymakers around the world to make critical decisions. We appreciated the opportunity to use our skills to support their efforts by creating an interactive data visualization tool.
IIASA COVID-19 report and mapbook
Research indicates that while all segments of the population are vulnerable to the virus, not all countries are equally vulnerable at the same time. Therefore, there is a need for accurate socioeconomic and demographic data to inform the allocation of scarce resources between countries and even within countries.
Current COVID-19 trends – information about the number of cases and effectiveness of policy response measures
Demographic indicators – age, population density, migration
Economic indicators – GDP, income, share of workers who work from home
Health-related indicators – information about healthcare system capacity
Tourism – number of visitors, including foreign
The indicators and data were chosen for their value in assisting epidemiological analysis and balanced policy formulation. Policymakers often face the challenge of prioritizing pandemic mitigation efforts over long-term impacts like unemployment, production losses, and supply-chain disruptions. IIASA’s series of maps and graphs facilitates understanding of these impacts while maintaining the focus on containing the spread of the virus.
Our collaboration – a dashboard for policymakers
Having taken the first step to disseminate the data as information in the form of a mapbook, Asjad Naqvi decided to make these data even more accessible by turning the maps into an interactive and visually appealing tool.
IIASA has previously approached Appsilon Data Science with a data visualization project, which had us improve the features and design of Visualize, a decision support tool for policymakers in natural disaster risk management. Building on this experience, we set out to assist Naqvi with creating a dashboard to deliver the data to end-users even faster.
The application allows for browsing through a list of 32 indicators and visualizing them on an interactive map. The list is not final with indicators being regularly reviewed, added, and retired on a weekly basis.
White circles indicate the number of cases per 1 million citizens.
The application will continue to provide the latest and most relevant information to track regional performance in Europe also in the post-pandemic phase:
The pandemic has a disproportionate impact on women’s employment and revealed some of the systemic inequalities.
Social distancing measures, for instance, have a large impact on sectors with high female employment rates. The closure of schools and daycare facilities particularly affects working mothers. Indicators such as female unemployment rate can inform appropriate remedial action in the post-COVID world and highlight regions of special concern like Castilla-La-Mancha in Spain.
Given the urgency of the pandemic emergency, we managed to develop and deploy this application within five days. We believe such partnerships between data science consultancies and research institutes can transform the way policymakers utilize data. We are looking forward to future collaborations with IIASA and other partners to help transform data into accessible and useful information.
A question from a Time magazine article has a clear underlying message: “Why is COVID-19 striking men harder than women?” By now, everyone has learned that men are more vulnerable to COVID-19 and, if infected, they tend to die much more often than women.
Are men however also more likely to get infected? On the face of it, the number of infections by gender suggests an almost perfect gender equality. Women represent on average 47% of all infections in 70 countries reporting the number of cases by sex, as listed in the online data tracker by Global Health 5050.
Case settled? Not quite yet. The aggregated total number might be deceiving. To understand an underlying story, one has to dig into the age and sex components of total infections. The overall balance of COVID cases by gender is an outcome of age- and sex-specific patterns of infection rates and the actual age- and sex composition of the population. This in turn, is often gender-unequal, especially at older ages, due to excess mortality among men and higher longevity of women.
In fact, in ten European countries I examined with colleagues from the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital, including Raya Muttarak from the IIASA World Population Program, it turns out that infection rates are highly gendered, especially when looking at the age pattern of coronavirus infection. From the teenage years up until their late 50s, women are more likely than men to be infected with COVID-19. Women in their 20s display the biggest gender gap in infections: on average only 64 men were infected per 100 infected women aged 20-29. After age 60, the pattern reverses, as infection rates among women drop at age 60-69 and the male infection rates go up or stay stable. This crossover is also clearly visible in the charts for Belgium, Czechia, Germany, and Italy. Between ages 60 and 79, men are more likely than women to be infected. The imbalance is sharpest among people in their 70s, with an average of 136 infected males per 100 infected women. This puts older males at a double disadvantage: they are more likely to be infected and, once infected, they are much more likely to die (with both higher age and being a male identified as important risk factors).
Is our evidence credible? Clearly, many infections are undetected and our data are affected by different testing availability and testing priorities across countries. It is possible that women of working age get more frequently tested than men as women tend to be more concerned about their health. This would bias the estimated share of infected women upwards. However, the remarkable regularity in the age- and gender-pattern of infections in the analyzed countries suggests that the observed gender disparities are real. The same gender disparity by age is observed in Czechia, Denmark, Germany, and Norway with relatively few infections, as well as in Belgium, England, Italy, and Spain with high numbers of reported infections. Of course, countries differ in their gender imbalance, especially at younger ages: the gender gap is, well, gaping, in Belgium, which reports only 34 infected men per 100 infected women at age 20-29. It is much smaller in Czechia, Germany, and Norway, but the female dominance at young ages and the male dominance at older ages, with a crossover around age 60, is consistently found in each society we studied.
What’s the likely explanation? At younger ages, the smoking gun points at women’s employment and occupations. Most women of working age in Europe are employed. This may also partly explain why European countries actually register a higher number of infections among women than most other countries, with an average share of 55%. More importantly, women are often working in professions that are most exposed to the infection. Think of nurses, medical doctors, other healthcare professionals, but also all the care workers in retirement homes, which turned out in some countries to be the focal points of infection. The switch in gender balance occurs right around the retirement age. The higher likelihood of infection among older men is probably linked with their poorer health and lower immunity.
If employment is potentially risky for women, staying at home with children—itself a product of ingrained gender inequalities in work and care—may lead to fewer infections. In countries where women’s employment dips after age 30 due to their extensive parental leaves, infection rates often show a distinct dip after that age as well, going up again in their 40s: Czechia, Germany, and partly Norway and Switzerland show such an M-shaped pattern of infection rates among women.
Even though the fatality rates of women below age 60 are low, engagement in care-work poses a higher risk to healthcare workers and care-home staff. This factor should be included in the ongoing discussions on the impact of COVID-19 on women’s health and wellbeing.
COVID-19 infection rates by age and sex per 1,000 population (solid line for females, dashed line for males, left-hand axis) and the relative M/F ratio in infection rates by age in four European countries
Together with a group of demographers from Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), and endorsed by more than 250 individuals from the academic community, I contributed to a statement urging governments, the World Health Organization, and the Pan American Health Organization, to take immediate action to drastically increase the coverage of COVID-19 tests in the region. This call for action was disseminated by the British Society for Population Studies, Asociación Latino Americana de Población, Sociedad Mexicana de Demografía, Associação Brasileira de Estudos Populacionais, and the Population Association of America, among other important institutions.
I joined this initiative by invitation from Dr. Enrique Acosta and other colleagues, because I firmly believe that the prospects for the COVID-19 pandemic in the LAC region are rather dramatic. Several studies document that, apart from being globally recognized for its high levels of economic and social inequality, the region also suffers from institutional coordination failures and poor governance, a lack of appropriate resources, and presents a unique epidemiological and demographic profile of its population that escalates the negative prospects of the pandemic. I wanted to explore in more detail why these features of LAC are a source of major concern and require immediate action.
Social and economic inequality in LAC will hamper the enforcement of social distancing and isolation measures, which have proven to mitigate the COVID-19 epidemic in other settings. More than half of the population is in the informal labour market and does not have access to social safety nets. For those covered by the social security system, the benefits already proposed by a few governments of the region such as Brazil, fall short of the daily needs of families. In addition to economic inequality, social inequality, which leads to a high degree of cohabitation between adults and the elderly, increases the exposure of those with the highest risk of complications and death.
In addition, with the closure of schools, children who do not have access to day-care centres and the public- or private education system, often rely on the help of their grandparents, which again brings greater vulnerability to families. Not to mention that these children won’t have ensured their learning opportunities, because their parents are often working and not able to home-school them, thus compromising their education outcomes.
Moreover, LAC is facing a rapid demographic transition and aging process, which is temporarily increasing the prevalence of a young population, meaning that the population age-structure of potential infected individuals differs from that of other settings. However, unlike the more developed countries, LAC’s epidemiologic transition, that is, the transition in which the prevalence of infectious diseases is “substituted” by chronic and degenerative diseases, is not complete. Paradoxically, the region exhibits both the prevalence of diseases that have long been eradicated in more developed contexts (such as malaria, dengue, and tuberculosis) and diseases of richer countries (such as hypertension, diabetes, and neoplasms).
On top of all the above-mentioned vulnerabilities, crisis-management efforts in the region are uncoordinated, and lacking transparency and commitment. Taking Brazil as an example: while some mayors and governors adopt measures of social isolation and prevention against COVID-19, parts of the federal executive power not only disdain the problem, but encourages the population not to meet the requirements established by the Ministry of Health. Such conflicting rules are bound to cause misunderstandings among the LAC population. The COVID-19 pandemic is a crucial moment for institutional coordination to ensure the effective management of the crisis.
As an important and urgent call to action for the pandemic in the region, myself and other LAC researchers are calling for an increase in test coverage and measures of social isolation. As reported in the non-specialized media under the slogan “help to flatten the curve”, social isolation allows the rate of contagion of the virus to be reduced, in order to prevent overloading the capacity of the health system. Existing literature documents that while the virus does not cause major damage to health for the majority of infected persons, it brings a high cost to the health system. Furthermore, the impacts on the later lives of individuals who were hospitalized due to the disease are not yet known. Not to mention, of course, the human tragedy and the costs in terms of lives lost to the disease.
Finally, imperative and immediate action against COVID-19 in LAC will depend on the widespread and low-cost application of tests. This is required because the former rigorous isolation measures mentioned above are highly ineffective if not accompanied by aggressive strategies to detect cases of COVID-19. This highlights the relevance of data collection to better inform policymakers and provide researchers with clear diagnoses of the conditions in the region.
Deaton A (2013). Cap. 3. Escaping death in the Tropics. In The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality. Princeton University Press.
By Nadejda Komendantova, researcher in the IIASA Advanced Systems Analysis Program
Nadejda Komendantova discusses how misinformation propagated by different communication mediums influence attitudes towards migrants in Austria and how the EU Horizon 2020 Co-Inform project is fostering critical thinking skills for a better-informed society.
Austria has been a country of immigration for decades, with the annual balance of immigration and emigration regularly showing a positive net migration rate. A significant share of the Austrian population are migrants (16%) or people with an immigrant background (23%). The migration crisis of 2015 saw Austria as the fourth largest receiver of asylum seekers in the EU, while in previous years, asylum seekers accounted for 19% of all migrants. Vienna has the highest share of migrants of all regions and cities in Austria, and over 96% of Viennese have contact with migrants in everyday life.
Scientific research shows that it is however not primarily these everyday situations that are influencing attitudes towards migrants, but rather the opinions and perceptions about them that have developed over the years. Perceptions towards migration are frequently based on a subjectively perceived collision of interests, and are socially constructed and influenced by factors such as socialization, awareness, and experience. Perceptions also define what is seen as improper behavior and are influenced by preconceived impressions of migrants. These preconceptions can be a result of information flow or of personal experience. If not addressed, these preconditions can form prejudices in the absence of further information.
The media plays an essential role in the formulation of these opinions and further research is necessary to evaluate the impact of emerging media such as social media and the internet, and their consequent impact on conflicting situations in the limited profit housing sector. Multifamily housing in particular, is getting more and more heterogeneous and the impacts of social media on perceptions of migrants are therefore strongest in this sector, where people with different backgrounds, values, needs, origins and traditions are living together and interacting on a daily basis. Perceptions of foreign characteristics are also frequently determined by general sentiments in the media, where misinformation plays a role. Misinformation has been around for a long time, but nowadays new technologies and social media facilitate its spread, thus increasing the potential for social conflicts.
Early in 2019, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) organized a workshop at the premises of the Ministry of Economy and Digitalization of the Austrian Republic as part of the EU Horizon 2020 *Co-Inform project. The focus of the event was to discuss the impact of misinformation on perceptions of migrants in the Austrian multifamily limited profit housing sector.
Nadejda Komendantova addressing stakeholders at the workshop.
We selected this topic for three reasons: First, this sector is a key pillar of the Austrian policy on socioeconomic development and political stability; and secondly, the sector constitutes 24% of the total housing stock and more than 30% of total new construction. In the third place, the sector caters for a high share of migrants. For example, in 2015 the leading Austrian limited profit housing company, Sozialbau, reported that the share of their residents with a migration background (foreign nationals or Austrian citizens born abroad) had reached 38%.
Several stakeholders, including housing sector policymakers, journalists, fact checkers, and citizens participated in the workshop. Among them were representatives from the Austrian Chamber of Labor, Austrian Limited Profit Housing (ALPH) companies “Neues Leben”, “Siedlungsgenossenschaft Neunkirchen”, “Heim”, “Wohnbauvereinigung für Privatangestellte”, the housing service of the municipality of Vienna, as well as the Austrian Association of Cities and Towns.
The workshop employed innovative methods to engage stakeholders in dialogue, including games based on word associations, participatory landscape mapping, as well as wish-lists for policymakers and interactive, online “fake news” games. In addition, the sessions included co-creation activities and the collection of stakeholders’ perceptions about misinformation, everyday practices to deal with misinformation, co-creation activities around challenges connected with misinformation, discussions about the needs to deal with misinformation, and possible solutions.
During discussions with workshop participants, we identified three major challenges connected with the spread of misinformation. These are the time and speed of reaction required; the type of misinformation and whether it affects someone personally or professionally; excitement about the news in terms of the low level of people’s willingness to read, as well as the difficulties around correcting information once it has been published. Many participants believed that they could control the spread of misinformation, especially if it concerns their professional area and spreads within their networking circles or among employees of their own organizations. Several participants suggested making use of statistical or other corrective measures such as artificial intelligence tools or fact checking software.
The major challenge is however to recognize misinformation and its source as quickly as possible. This requirement was perceived by many as a barrier to corrective measures, as participants mentioned that someone often has to be an expert to correct misinformation in many areas. Another challenge is that the more exciting the misinformation issue is, the faster it spreads. Making corrections might also be difficult as people might prefer emotional reach information to fact reach information, or pictures instead of text.
The expectations of policymakers, journalists, fact checkers, and citizens regarding the tools needed to deal with misinformation were different. The expectations of the policymakers were mainly connected with the creation of a reliable, trusted environment through the development and enforcement of regulations, stimulating a culture of critical thinking, and strengthening the capacities of statistical offices, in addition to making relevant statistical information available and understandable to everybody. Journalists and fact checkers’ expectations on the other hand, were mainly concerned with the development and availability of tools for the verification of information. The expectations of citizens were mainly connected with the role of decision makers, who they felt should provide them with credible sources of information on official websites and organize information campaigns among inhabitants about the challenges of misinformation and how to deal with it.
*Co-Inform is an EU Horizon 2020 project that aims to create tools for better-informed societies. The stakeholders will be co-creating these tools by participating in a series of workshops in Greece, Austria, and Sweden over the course of the next two years.
Adapted from a blog post originally published on the Co-Inform website.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.
By Nandita Saikia, Assistant Professor of Population Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and former postdoctoral researcher at IIASA
IIASA alumna Nandita Saikia, looks back on the two years that she spent living in Austria while working as a postdoctoral researcher in the World Population Program.
The submission of my PhD thesis, marriage, taking up a university position, and becoming a mother, all happened rather quickly for me. By the time I realized that I wanted to experience working outside of my own country, a good five years had flown by from the day that I received my PhD. For a female academic, who is trying to balance family and work, a decision to move abroad was never going to be easy. It needed a lot of planning, not only in terms of the research topic that I wanted to pursue, but also in terms of organizing things in a way that would lead to the least disruption for the research students I was supervising and of course, my family.
With little hope and many conditions, I searched for postdoctoral positions on the websites of various institutes. I was amazed when I found an advertisement for a postdoc position at IIASA, which mentioned that it had extended application deadlines for another 18 months – specifically to accommodate female candidates on maternity leave. This gender sensitive rule made my application possible, and ultimately gave me a rich experience and memories that I will cherish forever.
Looking back at the past two years at IIASA, a long list of reasons why this was such an amazing time of my and my family’s lives, comes to mind. The institute is housed in a beautiful two hundred and seventy five year old castle in Laxenburg just outside of Vienna. As an IIASA employee, my family and I could access the green imperial park once meant for Austria’s iconic empress Sissi, at any time. Apart from massive, century old trees that may have shaded Sissi on her own visits, the park contains a spring, a waterfall, and a lake with numerous monuments to Austrian royal families that frequented it over the centuries. The lush green trees, the musical sound of the spring, together with chirping wild ducks and swans, the Laxenburg castles, the tall yellow church under the deep blue sky – all constantly stimulated the spirit of a nature lover like me.
In terms of the more practical aspects of working at IIASA, staff from administration were always available to address all our personal and professional issues efficiently and warmly. We were supported with everything from extending our visas, finding a suitable place to live, and communicating with my son’s school in German, to locating the right physician. The IIASA Communication Department also helped me to convey the meaning of my research in “non-technical language” to a wider audience, for whom the findings are ultimately meant.
The soul of IIASA is truly international and inter-disciplinary. From North to South, East to West, I met colleagues from all parts of the world. The overall research environment is conducive to doing quality research. Our program director, Wolfgang Lutz, extended all possible support for me to stay at IIASA for two years. I however still had enough freedom to manage my responsibilities in terms of the supervision of my PhD students back in India.
IIASA always encourages its employees to be active and fit and supports them to do this in numerous ways. There are a number of clubs and activities on offer, including yoga, a music club, a running club, a swimming club, cycling, German lessons, aerobics, and a tennis club. The institute also maintains a gym for staff members. Some of my colleagues even kept workout clothes in the office for when they could manage to participate in some of these activities amidst their busy schedules. Although it was of course not possible to be in all the clubs, you had a choice, which contributed to the overall “feel good” environment. Being an international research organization, IIASA celebrates the different cultures of its staff members by organizing themed social gatherings like Asia Day, Latin American Day, Canada Day, and Mediterranean Day, to name a few, during which staff have the chance to taste authentic homemade cuisines and see cultural music or dance performances by colleagues. My heart knew no bounds when I got a chance to perform a Bollywood number and an Indian folk dance with my international colleagues!
I also developed an affinity with the IIASA Women in Science Club, which often organized “Meet, Greet and Eat” sessions during which we had the opportunity to interact with established women scientists in an informal way. It was indeed an eye opener to learn about how they overcame common challenges either in their early or later careers.
During our stay, we fully experienced life in Vienna, which has repeatedly been ranked as the best city in the world to live in. The centrality of Vienna also helped us to explore many neighboring countries. In our second year, we lived in Laxenburg where we felt very much at home. We loved how smoothly the little town runs while offering everything needed for a high quality life when raising young children.
Our time at IIASA was extremely productive, but we still felt as if we were in Vienna for a two-year long vacation! If someone asks me whether they should consider IIASA for a post doc or the Young Scientists Summer Program, my answer will be: “Yes, don’t even think twice!”
Nandita Saikia was a postdoctoral researcher at IIASA from 2017 to 2019. More information available at www.nanditasaikia.com.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.