Amid a global pandemic, Steve McConnell ’85, a software engineer and data scientist, was frustrated with his inability to understand what was going on. He encountered what he saw as biased and unreliable data.
“All of the reporting seemed to be based on the spin first and facts second—or not at all. I couldn’t understand what was happening, so I started to look at primary data,” McConnell said. That’s a lifelong habit he credits to his Whitman education and the importance his professors and courses placed on primary sources.
Seeking the Truth
Looking for answers, McConnell, who majored in philosophy at Whitman, began to create his own forecasting models for coronavirus deaths, testing and spread rates. He found his figures were often more accurate than the forecasts distributed by the media. He investigated the process for submitting forecasts to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and they were accepted.
McConnell’s goal is to produce fact-based, accessible and relevant data. “We have to keep the focus on the ‘what’ not the ‘what does it mean?’ nor the ‘why did it happen?’ Just the ‘what’. Then we can begin to understand.” McConnell points to the tumultuous emotional dynamic that the pandemic has created. People act out of anger and fear, which puts a spin on the data they seek or present.
Steve McConnell's Covid-19 Spin-Free Data Center features state dashboards, U.S. National charts, forecasts, CDC forecast evaluations and more.
While the news tends to focus on total numbers of positive tests and deaths, Steve McConnell and his data science group look at per-capita figures. With per-capita data, a different story is told about how well individual states are handling the virus.
Never having studied infectious diseases, McConnell has quickly developed a new area of knowledge. “I think if you have a good liberal arts education, you will never be bored, because there is always something that you find interesting. The pandemic has tested this, and I can’t say I’ve been bored” McConnell chuckled.