Watchdog Q&A

Published — August 21, 2020

Q&A: Ryan Panchadsaram on his push to make coronavirus data public



It’s been more than a month since we first broke the story of the White House Coronavirus Task Force’s unpublicized documents.

For this week’s Q&A, we spoke to Ryan Panchadsaram, former Deputy Chief Technology Officer of the United States under President Barack Obama and co-founder of COVID Exit Strategy, a website that tracks each state’s progress dealing with the pandemic. Last week, Panchadsaram filed a FOIA lawsuit to request the task force’s reports be made public. But the estimated date of completion for his request isn’t until June 16, 2023 (yes, you read that right).

*Interview lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

What made you file the FOIA lawsuit? What are you hoping to accomplish?

I believe the White House is being irresponsible and truly negligent not to share this document with the public. This painstakingly prepared document gets distributed to our 50 states’ governors, with specific recommendations for curtailing the spread, along with progress reports on testing and county-by-county assessments of the prevalence of the virus.

But nobody else has access to it. We only get access because of leaks from organizations like yours.

Can you give a specific example of how this data could help?

One example: Kentucky’s official dashboard does not share positivity data by county. This is a critical measure to understand if it is safe to reopen schools, offices and other public spaces. Guess where this data is? It is in the White House Coronavirus Task Force reports!

Every leak of these reports leads to both national and local coverage of the critical public health information within it.

Is Kentucky doing something intentionally malicious? Probably not. Aggregating this data can be difficult for a state to do. Having another source of data helps complement — and quality check — what a state can produce on its own. More public data is always better. And data shouldn’t be partisan — it should be a public resource.

What’s the story behind COVID Exit Strategy? What is your site trying to accomplish?

COVID Exit Strategy is meant to be a progress bar for how the country is doing on tackling COVID-19. Our team is made up of public health and crisis experts with previous experience in the Trump and Obama administrations. We grade states on such critical measures as disease spread, hospital load and the robustness of their testing. 

We primarily get this info from the COVID Tracking Project, (a volunteer group run out of The Atlantic) and the National Healthcare Safety Network, run by the CDC.

Our goal is to influence and inform state leaders. Companies use our data to determine office openings. Federal agencies use us, too. We’ve had over a million visitors since May. We did this as a way to help, but I don’t think everyone expected us to perform this function for as long as we’ve had to.

If the White House reports were public, it would put us out of business. And we’ll be happy.

Read more in Inside Public Integrity

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