Data is out of control: the story of COVID and airborne transmission

Data is out of control. Content is out of control. In fact, data and content were never in control for the vast majority of organizations. Content management was always a joke. Data management was always a joke. At best, we have data and content publishing and storage. Only a tiny fraction of organizations that I have dealt with in almost thirty years of working with Web content and data made any attempt to professionally manage their data and content after it was published and stored.

I want to present one example of how organizations mistreat their content. It’s from the WHO website. First off, I have worked with the WHO in the past. I know the core Web team have tried to do their very best, but the WHO website has two classical characteristics that militate against professional content management. It has distributed publishing responsibility. Thus, nobody is really in charge, particularly of content that has been published. Secondly, the website has a traditional communications ethos. It’s about big stories and big images and making an immediate splash. Concepts such as metadata, navigation, classification, search are rarely given the attention they deserve.

For example, I just searched on the WHO website for “Is COVID airborne?”. I got zero results. Yes, zero results. That’s zero. As in 0.

“Early in the pandemic, the World Health Organization stated that SARS-CoV-2 was not transmitted through the air,” Dyani Lewis wrote for Nature in 2022. “That mistake and the prolonged process of correcting it sowed confusion and raises questions about what will happen in the next pandemic.”

Science magazine asked WHO chief scientist, Soumya Swaminathan in October 2022 about the slowness of WHO to admit that COVID was airborne. “We should have done it much earlier, based on the available evidence, and it is something that has cost the organization,” she admitted.

We all make mistakes, and while the WHO (and other government entities) were extraordinarily and excruciatingly slow in admitting COVID is airborne, it’s at least some progress.

What will happen with the Web content now that this mistake has been admitted? Are there editors ready to remove and/or update information to properly reflect the facts and the science? If it’s like the vast majority of websites, then in twenty years’ time you’ll be finding search results from WHO on Google or Bing that misinform about COVID.

I did a quick search on the WHO website using Google. Strangely, one of the oldest pages, from February 11, 2020, clearly states: “This is airborne, corona is airborne.” However, by February 24, 2020, a page was stating, “Airborne spread has not been reported for COVID-19.” A PDF from March 2020 says: “Transmission of COVID-19 is through droplets, it is not airborne.” Another PDF from March 2020 states: “Airborne spread is very unlikely in normal circumstances.” A March 2020 webpage states confidently that “transmission of the COVID-19 virus can occur by direct contact with infected people and indirect contact with surfaces in the immediate environment.”

By July 2020, when there was lots of scientific evidence that COVID was airborne, a page on the WHO website was stating: “To the best of our understanding, the virus is primarily spread through contact and respiratory droplets.” In July 2020, another WHO page was stating: “To date, there is insufficient data to determine the contribution of aerosol transmission in community settings.”

Will this misinformation be removed from the site? (It can be archived for historical or legal purposes.) Will it at least be corrected and downgraded in search results? If the WHO is run like 99% of organizations out there, then the answer will be no. Like the zero results from the WHO search engine, there are simply zero resources to professionally manage content that has already been published.

For all the fancy vanity talk of AI and chatbots, etc., the actual reality is that data is out of control. And at a senior management level, practically nobody knows there is a problem, and those who do know don’t care.

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