With the COVID-19 pandemic on the decline in Minnesota and much of the country, the Star Tribune is beginning to scale back its data collection efforts — most notably its Minnesota COVID-19 tracker. The tracker, which launched several days after the first confirmed case was recorded in the state in March 2020, quickly became a valued resource for readers seeking data-driven information about the pandemic in Minnesota. It is by far the most-visited article in the history of StarTribune.com.
While the tracker was popular with Star Tribune readers, building and maintaining it has been an unpredictable, time-consuming and labor-intensive undertaking for the small group of journalists who created and managed it for the past 16 months.
At the same time, the daily figures released by Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) have become less useful for assessing the status of the pandemic in the state. By transitioning from daily to weekly updates on July 1, the tracker will focus more on developing trends than the daily churn of numbers. It will allow us to switch to a more stable data source, freeing up our staffers to focus on other coverage priorities. But it also means we will be tracking less data going forward. Here are answers to some questions you may have about the future of our COVID-19 data features.
Why is the Star Tribune scaling back its COVID-19 data collection?
Since the launch of the state's vaccination program, daily cases, deaths and hospitalizations have fallen dramatically. Many state and local COVID-19 measures have come to an end, and life in Minnesota is beginning to return to something resembling normalcy. Well over a year after the pandemic started, the day-to-day numbers don't mean as much as they did early on, and reader interest has declined. As a result, the Star Tribune has already reduced its coverage of the daily data updates and no longer publishes stories by default at 11 a.m. each day.
This is also a labor issue. Despite numerous requests from news organizations, the Minnesota Department of Health has never provided daily COVID-19 case and death data in a downloadable, machine-readable format — instead opting to update tables on its COVID-19 Situation Update page. After weeks of manually entering the data into spreadsheets early in the pandemic, it became clear that we needed a more automated process. So the Star Tribune built website "scrapers" to automatically ingest the data and structure it in a usable format for our readers and reporters. On a good day, the system posts updated figures and charts within 10 minutes of their release without human intervention. But it's not always that simple.
Because MDH's data is entered manually into the data tables on its Situation Update page, it has been consistently prone to typos. If a mistake is made typing in the data, if the format changes slightly, or if new elements are added to the page, our scrapers fail. That sets off a scramble for us to find the error, identify how to fix it and write more code to prevent that error from breaking things in the future. Our current scrapers require thousands of lines of code and have been redeployed about 200 times. Put simply, managing the data collection requires tedious work and is not sustainable in its current form. Moving to weekly updates will allow us to switch to a much more stable data source — the New York Times, which collects much of its Minnesota data from MDH. This will allow our data journalists to focus on other coverage.
Does this mean the Star Tribune is finished covering the pandemic?
Absolutely not. Our journalists will continue to monitor the daily numbers and will decide whether there is news to report. We will continue to publish in-depth stories about emerging trends, new virus variants, vaccination progress (or lack thereof) in the state, or other aspects of the pandemic as events warrant.
Which pages will be going away when the switch is made?
On July 1, we will archive our existing COVID-19 tracker. It will no longer be updated but will remain online as a historical resource here. The vaccination data from our vaccine tracker will also be archived here. The FAQ on the current vaccine page will remain online. Our weekly cases by ZIP code map was archived on June 1.
But something will replace the tracker, right?
Yes! We will launch a new, weekly Minnesota COVID-19 data tracker on July 1 at the current COVID-19 tracker URL. The new tracker will include vaccination data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with all other data provided by the New York Times. It will be updated around mid-morning each Monday. In the event that a federal holiday is observed on a Monday, it will be updated Tuesday. Each weekly update will include new totals from the previous full week of data releases, starting on Sundays and ending on Saturdays.
What will the new tracker include?
It will have many of the elements on the existing tracker, including:
- The percentage of the state's population that has been partially and completely vaccinated
- New weekly cases and deaths, as well as totals
- Charts showing weekly cases and deaths over time
- A county map and table that show where new cases grew fastest in the most recent week
What won't the new tracker include?
Switching data sources definitely requires some trade-offs. We will no longer track hospitalizations, completed tests and daily positivity rates, or cases and deaths by age group. Our national cases and deaths map and global case and death figures will also go away.
Where can I find this information?
The Minnesota Department of Health will continue to provide daily updates on cases, deaths, vaccinations, hospitalizations, testing and demographics on its COVID-19 Situation Update page. The state will also continue to provide additional vaccination data on its COVID-19 vaccine dashboard. National figures can be found at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's COVID-19 tracker. Global case and death figures continue to be tracked by Johns Hopkins University.