The Long View: Official but discounted


Official but discounted

Readers might recall the official statement last week from Makati Medical Center’s (MMC) head, and my acknowledgment of an error, when it disputed that it had any backlogs in its COVID-19 testing. At the time I responded to their statement, I said the reason for the error is interesting, and here it is. Readers might further recall that the hospital was responding to my quoting a Filipino data scientist in Australia, Andrei Diamante, who was analyzing the data drops of the Department of Health (DOH).

I asked Andrei to walk me through the data drops of the DOH. He says it begins with, which is the archives directory of DOH. There, a folder exists for each date of the DOH data drops. Each of these folders contains multiple files, one of which is the data set on testing aggregates. In the metadata file on the testing aggregates, the definition of backlogs is “Number of samples without validated results released within 48 hours after receipt.”

With that information in hand, here’s what happened. The testing aggregate data set dated June 26 contained records until June 25. In this data set, it was reported that MMC had a backlog of zero on June 24 and a backlog of 6,384 on June 25. The same data set published the next day, however, reported that MMC had zero backlogs for the past three days (in its statement, the hospital attributed this to a “reporting or encoding error on a daily report obtained by the DOH,” which it says was subsequently clarified and addressed by both institutions, which is a nice way of putting the burden on the public when it’s private and public institutions who should be rigorous about their data drops).

What this means is that the official data of the government reported a backlog for MMC in its June 25 data, which was included in the data drop for June 26, and published at lunch time on June 27. It was that official statement of fact that Andrei noted and which I quoted in turn; and it was Andrei who spotted how this statement of fact became a non-fact the next day. Yet it bears mentioning that the figure disputed by MMC came from an official source — the most official source there is, actually, the DOH — and went undisputed and unrevised for a full 24 hours in the data drops themselves. Which only underscores the recent columns I’ve devoted to the topic of the fluctuating and increasingly questioned (and thus, questionable, to its critics) numbers of the DOH. Because if every data drop of the government — meant to provide a speedy, convenient, and trustworthy source of information for reporting and analysis — has to go through its own data quarantine because errors have crept in, or will have to be rechecked, then why have official data drops at all?

Then again, the recent (July 4) observations of Diamante (follow him on Twitter: @_drei) bears sharing. Tweeting on that date, he noted, “Latest DOH data drop shows Cebu City has crossed the 5K mark of confirmed cases, while total of Metro Manila is now close to 20K confirmed cases… And the latest test data shows a count of more than 1.5K individuals testing positive, the highest in a single day since DOH has been publishing testing aggregate data. Both backlogs and positive test results are increasing… And finally, data quality of the DOH data drop is in its dirtiest state ever. More than 11.4K of confirmed cases have no local city or municipality associated, and more than 8.6K cases have incomplete or inconsistent date values.”

Considering the topic of this column, it seems advisable for every institution submitting data to the DOH to check how their data are being reflected in the DOH data drops.

As it is, the DOH and its data saga has entered a new chapter yet again. Last Monday, it mistakenly declared four Metro Manila cities as emerging COVID-19 hotspots, only to take it back after media had gone ahead and reported it. Just yesterday, Cebu City Mayor Edgardo Labella stated that starting that day (July 7), it would be the DOH-Central Visayas (DOH 7) that would release the official daily reports of COVID-19 cases in Cebu City, “upon the recommendation of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases to avoid confusion among the public while its office and the DOH are still harmonizing their data.”

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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