Data for the public good

When ‘doing your own research’ is actually a good thing

A Winnipeg Free Press story by Ryan Thorpe published in February 2022 made a big splash, revealing that “Winnipeg’s public works dept. wastes millions of tax dollars on unnecessary projects.” What was unique about this investigation was that it was based on the meticulous research of Christian Sweryda, a private citizen.

In an age when mistrust of science and institutions is widespread, this situation shows the role that legitimate independent researchers can play. This work has been especially present during the COVID-19 pandemic, where many have taken to social media to share their expertise.

Winnipegger Matthew Froese has shared his COVID-19-related data analysis on his Twitter account (@Matthew_Froese) since Oct. 29, 2020, when he posted his first chart.

“I’d noticed that cases were climbing and made a spreadsheet to compare our trend against a simple exponential growth curve,” he says in an email to The Uniter.

While his first post only got one like, Froese’s subsequent posts gained more traction as Manitoba’s cases increased.

“I think people who were more interested had plenty of reasons to be: parents worried about keeping their kids safe, people worried about protecting vulnerable family members, people worried about the impact of restrictions on their ability to pay their bills or get together with loved ones,” he says.

Many, including universities, have recognized the growing importance of data science, called the “sexiest job of the 21st century” by Harvard Business Review. In fact, as previously reported in The Uniter, the University of Winnipeg launched a data science program in 2020.

Jeff Peitsch, a third-year student in this program and a Wesmen volleyball player, says it’s an exciting time for his field.

“It’s good that the public is seeing (the importance of data) now, so that we can be better in the future,” he says.

Peitsch, who hopes to obtain a PhD in statistics, is currently interested in infectious-disease modeling.

“At the end of my second year, I actually got a job working for one of my statistics professors researching infectious-disease systems,” he says. “Doing research that can be applied to COVID-19 or other pandemics is really exciting for me.”

Froese, who is a mechanical engineer, says “analyzing data from building systems and mechanical equipment” is part of his work, and “COVID has a large intersection with ventilation and indoor air quality,” which is part of his area of practice.

“Throughout the pandemic, I think many people were interested in seeing more information than was made available, and I think the expectation that data should be publicly available is growing,” he says.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Manitoba’s government has come under fire for a lack of publicly available data and projections (or skewed data due to limited testing capacity). In August 2021, one doctor even described the situation as “driving with a blindfold.”

“There have been so many unknowns in the past few years, and we’d all like to be more confident in the decisions we’re making for ourselves and the people we love,” Froese says.

Published in Volume 76, Number 22 of The Uniter (March 23, 2022)

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