Beginning on March 7, 2020, and continuing every single day for the following year, the COVID Tracking Project at The Atlantic engaged in an effort of enormous scale and significance: the compilation and publishing of data on COVID-19 testing, cases, hospitalizations, and deaths for the United States, by a collective of more than 500 volunteers. Now the archives of the data and organizational records generated by the project will find a permanent home at the University of California, San Francisco, in partnership with the California Digital Library.
This one-of-a-kind collection is the first citizen-science project donated to the UCSF Archives and Special Collections. The archives of the COVID Tracking Project include all of the data generated in its 15 months of existence, and first-of-its-kind software tool to explore the conversations and context that went into creating the data set. They also contain something unique to a collection of this sort: records preserving the process of the project’s most unusual inception and operation, which will enable researchers to review the grassroots collaboration as it was happening in real time.
“The COVID Tracking Project is an inspiring example of a citizen crowdsourcing initiative that enabled democratization and transparency of science communications for the benefit of society,” said Polina Ilieva, head of the UCSF Archives and Special Collections. “These born-digital records are unique and bring with them distinctive challenges that the UCSF Archives and Special Collections team is ready to address. We are excited to serve as a repository for this distinctive collection that documents how nontraditional scientific communities collaborate, develop infrastructure, and engage with public and state officials to foster dialogue and transparency.”
The COVID Tracking Project data will serve as a major piece of the UCSF COVID-19 archival collection—initiated last spring to chronicle the UCSF community’s response to and experience of the COVID-19 pandemic. The project’s data are intended to augment official university records and to shape and preserve the collective national record of the pandemic.
“We talked with librarians, archivists, and scholars all over the country, and they kept pointing us to UCSF and the California Digital Library. We couldn’t imagine a better home for this historical record,” said Alexis Madrigal, who co-founded the project as a staff writer at The Atlantic, and is now a host of KQED’s Forum and an Atlantic contributing writer. The project was also co-founded by Atlantic staff writer Robinson Meyer; Erin Kissane; and Jeff Hammerbacher.
Earlier this year, Madrigal and Kissane wrote: “From its inception, this project was both unlikely and unprecedented: No one expected a volunteer pop-up collective to publish and interpret public health data for the United States for the first year of a global pandemic. We began the work out of necessity and planned to do it for a couple of weeks at most, always in the expectation that the federal public health establishment would make our work obsolete. Every few months through the course of the project, we asked ourselves whether it was possible to wind down. Instead, we saw the federal government continue to publish patchy and often ill-defined data while our world-famous public health agencies remained sidelined and underfunded, their leadership seemingly inert.”
The Atlantic’s unique partnership with the COVID Tracking Project allowed its reporters to continually identify gaps in the nation’s faltering public-health systems, and then fill those gaps with new data and analysis. This journalism has improved the pandemic data available to all Americans, and provided a crucial service to public-health officials, political leaders, and citizens trying to navigate a national disaster.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has historical significance, and CDL is proud to collaborate with UCSF Library to preserve the amazing efforts of the COVID Tracking Project. This project will ensure their experiences, processes, and data are available for future generations to explore and learn from,” said Günter Waibel, executive director of the California Digital Library.