The COVID Tracking Project collecting data from around the United States

Why Slack is the COVID Tracking Project’s central nervous system

From day one, Slack has helped a determined group of volunteers compile the most complete data set in the U.S. for the Covid-19 pandemic

Author: Lauren JohnsonJanuary 26th, 2021Illustration by Giacomo Bagnara

When Alexis Madrigal and Robinson Meyer, staff writers at The Atlantic magazine, co-founded the COVID Tracking Project in March 2020, they knew they would need more than a spreadsheet to organize the most comprehensive data set available about the Covid-19 pandemic in the country. They also knew they couldn’t do it by themselves.

Today, the COVID Tracking Project at The Atlantic has grown into a network of more than 1,200 volunteers, epidemiologists, journalists and data scientists constantly sifting through data from 56 U.S. states and territories. And Slack, the secure channel-based messaging platform, is the “brains of the operation,” according to Madrigal.

Whether volunteers are reviewing data with a fine-tooth comb in Slack channels—a single place to share files and messages—or letting their personalities shine through custom emoji, Slack is the glue that binds the COVID Tracking Project’s diverse coalition.

We sat down with Madrigal and his teammates to see how the organization uses Slack to help volunteers start making contributions from day one.

Kara Schechtman, Data Quality Co-Lead, The COVID Tracking Project

“Having everything centralized in Slack has been key to the COVID Tracking Project’s success.”

Kara SchechtmanData Quality Co-Lead, The COVID Tracking Project

Swiftly setting new volunteers up for success in Slack

Amanda French joined the COVID Tracking Project in March as a community lead. “I saw the calls for volunteers on Twitter and realized this initiative was something I could meaningfully contribute to,” she says.

Now a paid contractor, French helps onboard new volunteers in Slack. While newbies are undergoing training and a standard background check, they receive restricted user access to Slack for 30 days. If volunteers are still committed after a month, they’re granted full access to the Slack workspace. French explains that restricting new users before they’re fully onboarded helps the organization keep data secure. “It’s easy for me to message volunteers in Slack and ask if they’re still interested in volunteering,” she says. “If they are, we extend their accounts.”

When a new teammate joins the workspace, an automated Slack bot sends a welcome message that includes a guide to the COVID Tracking Project, a code of conduct and a list of key contacts. When volunteers join specific teams, they also receive onboarding guides specialized to the work they’ll contribute.

Welcome bot welcoming new volunteer to the COVID Tracking Project

For the core data entry team, volunteers must go through self-training in #volunteer-intake before they can access the full workspace. French’s team relies on Workflow Builder, a visual tool that allows any Slack user to automate routine functions, to track whether volunteers have completed self-training. Afterward, the team invites volunteers to join the #data-entry channel.

Amanda French, Lead of Community, The COVID Tracking Project

“We do everything in Slack, and leverage all of the features that Slack has to get our work done.”

Amanda FrenchCommunity Lead, The COVID Tracking Project

Organizing the day’s work in Slack channels

Kara Schechtman is a data entry shift lead, and every day, her team scours state health department websites for Covid-19 case information. Volunteers then collect the data and document current trends in nearly 150 Slack channels.

“Each team has its own conventions,” Schechtman says. “For example, data entry has our main Slack channel to coordinate volunteer shifts, and we have separate Slack channels for both announcements and actual data entry.”

The Slack process behind data entry drives the project forward each day. At 3:30 p.m. Eastern Time, an automated workflow called Shift Bot posts instructions for 12 to 15 volunteers in the #data-entry channel. Various workflows keep the process moving over the two- to four-hour shift, including automatically double-checking data points, flagging abnormalities, and creating threads for volunteers to log information.

Data entry Slack channel interactions at the COVID Tracking Project

Volunteers have two things open at all times: Slack and the spreadsheet for tracking data. If they have a question, they can easily start a thread in the channel following a specific convention. Threads, a feature that organizes conversations in Slack channels, and direct messages allow shift leads to track issues and follow up on questions. Using the Slack call feature, anyone can spin up video calls as needed.

In addition to streamlining internal communication between volunteers, the COVID Tracking Project uses Slack Connect to securely work across organizational boundaries and share data with external partners, like Johns Hopkins University. This has led to the exchange of invaluable information with some of the country’s leading researchers. Harvard University, for example, has an initiative to track Covid-19 data by gender.

COVID Tracking Project using Slack Connect to sync with outside partners

Better communication with custom Slack workflows and emoji

French and Schechtman use the Zapier integration for Slack to manage workflows that keep the data quality team on track. In one, teammates can file requests to double-check data points when unusual findings are uncovered. The workflow pushes the request to the #data-to-do-bot channel.

To keep information organized as they cycle through data quality shifts, teammates use emoji to report the status of each task. Quang P. Nguyen, a volunteer, created the “Quang emoji” system, which consists of three icons to signal:

  • A request for more information about a data point
  • The issue has been addressed and closed
  • The issue is still open

When volunteers leave a shift, this system helps them pass the baton to their colleagues, who can simply glance at the thread for visual indicators of where they were and then hit the ground running.

“Our volunteers are between 16 and 70 years old, and we needed to create a culture that would allow these wildly different people from all over the country to come together and forge a shared identity. For us, that’s Slack.”

Alexis MadrigalCo-Founder, The COVID Tracking Project

Fostering a driven community of remote volunteers

Volunteers say that Slack helps bolster a sense of belonging at a time when many feel isolated. “Our Slack culture is very happy and informal and has provided an unexpected source of community during the pandemic,” says Schechtman. French agrees: “There’s a really strong, supportive culture in Slack.”

The volunteers are even creating an oral history project to capture their experiences. Team leads will record interviews with volunteers and share them in the #volunteer-stories channel.

In addition to camaraderie, the power of the volunteers’ data work is evident in its use across CNN, the Wall Street Journal, The Hill, and even Joe Biden’s presidential transition team. “On the impact side,” says Madrigal, “we really want to be a force for reality, and our data has become the standard.”

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