COVID-19 Statistics: Reading The Tea Leaves

If you’ve been tracking the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic around the world, as we have, you’ve doubtless seen a lot of statistics. The raw numbers look shocking, and in many cases they are, but as always it’s crucially important to ask yourself what the numbers mean.

For instance, our own Tom Nardi put together a counter that displays the total number of COVID-19 cases in the US. It’s a cool project that puts together some web-scraping, a nice OLED screen, and a 3D-printed network display. When this is all over, it can be easily re-trained to show some other statistic of interest, and it’s a great introduction to a number of web APIs. However, it’s looking at the wrong number.

Let me explain. Diseases spread exponentially: the more people who have it, the more people are spreading it. And exponential curves all look the same when you plot out their instantaneous values — the raw number of COVID-19 cases. Instead, what distinguishes one exponential from another is the growth parameter, and this is related to the number of new cases per day, or more correctly, to the day-to-day change in new cases.

If left unchecked, and especially in the early stages of spread, the number of new cases grows every day. But as control efforts, mainly social distancing, take effect, the rate at which the number of new cases can slow, or even go negative. That’s the plan, anyway.

As is very well explained by this video from 3 Blue, 1 Brown, if this were a naturally spreading epidemic, the point at which the new cases just starts to decline marks the halfway point in the course of the disease. Here, we’re hoping that particularly strict quarantining procedures will cut this run even shorter, but if you’re interested in how the disease is spreading, the point when daily new infections turns around is what you’re looking for.

Why not put the daily difference in new cases on your desktop, then? These numbers are noisy, and the difference jumps all around. To be serious, you would probably want to put a moving average on the new cases figure, and look at that difference. Or simply show the new cases instead and look for it to drop for a few days in a row.

Still, this won’t be a perfect measure. For starters, COVID-19 seems to incubate for roughly a week without symptoms. This means that whatever numbers we have, they’re probably a week behind the actual situation. We won’t see the effects of social distancing for at least a week, and maybe more.

Further complicating things is the availability of tests, human factors like weekends when more people get tested but fewer government reporting offices are open, timezones, etc. (What happened on Feb. 13?)

I’m not going to go so far as to say that the COVID-19 stats that we see are useless — actually far from it. But if you’re going to armchair quarterback this pandemic, do it right. Plot out the daily new cases, maybe apply a little smoothing, at least in your head, and realize that whatever you’re seeing now probably represents what happened last week.

When you finally see the turning point, you may celebrate a little, because that means the halfway point was a week ago. We’ve seen it happen in China around Feb 2, and I’m looking forward to it happening here. I hope it happens wherever you are, and soon.

We will get through this. Stay safe, all. And keep yourself uninfected to keep others uninfected.

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Introducing The Hackaday Calendar Of Virtual Events

For many of us, the social distancing procedures being used to help control the spread of COVID-19 have been a challenge. We can’t go to our hackerspaces, major events have been postponed or canceled entirely, and even getting parts has become difficult due to the immense pressure currently being placed on retailers and delivery services. For even the most stoic hacker, these are difficult times.

But you don’t have to go through it alone. We might not be able to meet in person, but that doesn’t mean the exchange of thoughts and ideas has to stop. Hackaday has started up a calendar of events you can use to keep track of virtual classes and hangouts that you can take part in from the comfort of your own home. You don’t even need to wear pants (but you should, just to be safe).

Hacker Check-in returns tomorrow at 5pm Eastern time and this weekend is packed with must-see entries. You can start your Saturday by taking part in a KiCad/FreeCAD meetup, sit in on the BSides Atlanta security conference, jump over to a hardware show and tell in New Delhi, and then cap things off with an introduction to quantum computing presented by Kitty Yeung.

Looking to be more than an idle participant? If you want to teach a class, host a show and tell, or put together a round-table discussion, drop a line to superconference@hackaday.io. Pretty much anything of interest to the hacking and making community is fair game, and who knows when you’ll ever get another chance at a captive audience like this. When you haven’t left the house in a week, there’s not a whole lot you won’t watch online.

It’s easy to see social distancing as an overreaction, but the numbers don’t lie. Things are serious out there, especially in the dense population centers where hacker events generally take place. By staying home and taking part in events virtually, we can do our part to control the spread of this virus and hopefully return things to normal that much sooner.

Stay Informed: How To Pull Your Own COVID-19 Data

For all the technology we have, it can still be frustratingly difficult to get any concrete information from the media. Sometimes all you want to do is to cut through the noise and see some real numbers. Watching talking heads argue for a half hour probably isn’t going to tell you much about how the COVID-19 virus is spreading through your local community, but seeing real-time data pulled from multiple vetted sources might.

Having access to the raw data about COVID-19 cases, fatalities, and recoveries is, to put it mildly, eye-opening. Even if day to day life seems pretty much unchanged in your corner of the world, seeing the rate at which these numbers are climbing really puts the fight into perspective. You might be less inclined to go out for a leisurely stroll if you knew how many new cases had popped up in your neck of the woods during the last 24 hours.

But this article isn’t about telling you how to feel about the data, it’s about how you can get your hands on it. What you do with it after that is entirely up to you. Depending on where you live, the numbers you see might even make you feel a bit better. It’s information on your own terms, and in these uncertain times, that might be the best we can hope for.

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Automating Hand Sanitizer — If You Can Find Any

We once saw a Romeo and Juliet production where the two families were modern-day mob families with 3-piece suits and pistols. If they made King Richard III set in this week, the famous line might be: “Hand sanitizer, hand sanitizer, my kingdom for hand sanitizer!” Even if you have a supply stashed in your prepper cache, you have to touch the bottle so you could cross-contaminate with other users. Public places often have automatic dispensers to combat this, and now you can too. [Just Barran] shows the device in a video, you can see below.

Sourcing parts for projects is sometimes a problem, but right now we are betting the hand sanitizer will be the hardest component. Of course, the Internet is ripe with homemade brews that may or may not be effective based on beer, grain alcohol, or a variety of other base materials.

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Ventilators 101: What They Do And How They Work

Treating the most serious cases of COVID-19 calls for the use of ventilators. We’ve all heard this, and also that there is a shortage of these devices. But there is not one single type of ventilator, and that type of machine is not the only option when it comes to assisted breathing being used in treatment. Information is power and having better grasp on this topic will help us all better understand the situation.

We recently wrote about a Facebook group focused on open source ventilators and other technology that could assist in the COVID-19 pandemic. There was an outpouring of support, and while the community is great when it comes to building things, it’s clear we all need more information about the problems doctors are currently dealing with, and how existing equipment was designed to address them.

It’s a long and complicated topic, though, so go get what’s left of your quarantine snacks and let’s dig in.

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Hack The Quarantine, Not Just The Medical Equipment

As the COVID-19 pandemic invades in some way every corner of life, we’ve seen significant effort from the hardware community in considering the problem of inadequate supplies of medical equipment. The pandemic and its associated quarantine and lockdowns do not stop at medical supplies though, a whole host of problems associated with the whole population self-isolating are there to be solved. This makes Hack Quarantine, an online event that bills itself as “A global virtual hackathon”, particularly interesting. It’s encouraging its participants to look at the wider aspects of the whole thing rather than solely dreaming up an open-source ventilator design, because in the absence of clinical trials or indeed any experts in medical devices it’s possible that medical equipment from a hackathon might be of limited usability.

The hackathon will run from March 23rd to April 12th, and it already has a schedule of talks and workshops. We can’t help noticing a dearth of hardware-related stuff among all the software, and perhaps this could be where you come in. It’s something that never ceases to amaze us as Hackaday writers, the depth of hardware skill among our readership, and we’re guessing that plenty of you could bring something to this event.

We’ve brought you more than a few COVID-19 stories over the last few weeks. If this hackathon isn’t for you then can we point you at our Folding@Home team? Also, you may wish to look at the best fabric choice for your own face masks.

Another Blinky Light Project — With A COVID-19 Twist

It seems all anyone is talking about right now is the virus scare that has most of us with a little extra time on our hands. [Paul Klinger] — a name we’ve seen before — built a blinking LED project to pass the time. So what? Well, the lights are made to look like a SARS-CoV-2 virus and the LEDs blink the virus RNA code. You can see the results in the video below.

This isn’t very surprising when you consider we’ve seen [Paul] make tiny things and even blink out his own DNA, so he’s clearly got some specific interests in this area.

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