From big to thick data: how do we make sense of the impacts of Covid 19?

7 min readMay 4, 2020
Andrea Siodmok,

We’re currently in a surreal place and while many people talk about moving from an emergency response to a recovery and renewal, it’s important we can come up for air and reflect on what we’re experiencing in this situation.

  • How can we take a step back from how the virus and its implications is impacting us everyday? How can we create meaning for ourselves?
  • How can we still feel “at home” while the world around us has turned upside down? How can we help shape this future while acknowledging we can’t control what happens next?
  • How can we use live data to respond quickly while using qualitative data to make sense of the shifts that we can’t yet see?

To help make sense of all these complex questions, I’ve found Andrea Siodmok from Policy Lab’s participatory policy design ladder as a helpful framework to use. This helps us avoid discriminating between “hard” quantitative data being more important than “softer” qualitative data, but instead seeing them across a spectrum with different purposes and more importantly as complementary.

From this, we can see how we can start making sense of the impacts of Covid 19 on people and how we might work with them on what happens next. These could break down into:

  • How can we use data to track the impact of the virus to better reduce it?
  • How can we use data to track how people act in any exit from lockdown?
  • How can we capture & share stories of people’s lived experiences?

1. How can we use data to track the impact of the virus to better reduce it?

Sharing data about the spread of the virus feels both a necessity to help public services best plan & respond, an anxiety-inducer as the rates kept shooting up the graph and a criteria for how and where we might exit from lock down, called by some the rhythm of the “hammer and the dance”.

Real time data is also being used to understand need (i.e. people who need to be shielded, people who are in urgent need of food, etc.), supplies (food, PPE, etc.) and the resilience of services to respond to the emergency. However, increasingly more networked approaches will be used like contact tracing, but how could this approach also help identify how vulnerable or resilient people are and what inequalities people are facing?

NESTA has complied how cities are using data to better manage the impact of the virus and tackle it

2. How can we use data to track how people act in any exit from lockdown?

If and when we exit lock down, how the public understands what they’re allowed to do and why it’s important will be critical to how they behave and how they influence the spread of the virus. If they don’t understand the implications of their behaviours, or worse if they don’t believe them, or if they think the risk is worth taking, they will help increase the spread of the virus. It could mean that public behaviour determines whether or not we have a slow exit from lockdown or more adaptive triggering where we come in and out of lockdown.

How can we capture how people use and interact with spaces as we exit from lockdown?

  • Uncover the unseen: Reveal underlying issues and topics through how people act in public spaces
  • Value feeling as well as need: collect emotional, sensory and experiential data and take it as seriously as facts and figures
  • Design empathetic spaces: Think about what conditions would encourage people to physically distance in the spaces they use everyday
  • Stimulate new ideas and behaviours: encourage people to be able to develop new ways of acting that are socially responsible

3. How can we capture and share stories of people’s lived experiences of this situation?

I’ve blogged previously about the power of stories and developed a project which uncovered creative ways communities were using to tackle unmet needs through storytelling.

Various organisations are using storytelling to share people’s experiences of this situation, from @britainthinks Coronavirus Diaries or @guardian using diaries or @bbc tracking the experiences of frontline workers or @statoflife creating a tracker to see how Covid 19 has affected people.

Other organisations are tracking the impacts to understand what investment and infrastructure are most needed to rebuild resilience

The Young Foundation has launched a study into how we are individually and collectively changing during lockdown and beyond. It wants to understand how resilient our communities are, how this evolves, how it will be “tested” over a prolonged period and what best to support and rebuild it.

Meanwhile, the Local Trust has commissioned in-depth research to look how different communities across England respond to COVID-19, and how they recover. It will help to provide insight into the impact of unexpected demands or crisis on local communities, and the factors that shape their resilience, response and recovery.

The Relationships Project is sharing what they see as they see it, seeking out voices that are less heard, identify signals of the future that can help us build better relationships.*

This builds on previous research that was done with communities post-disaster such as the excellent The Response documentary & podcast series that takes a deep dive into a unique location to uncover the under-reported stories that are hidden just beneath the surface of extraordinary events.

These studies help put unmet needs into character. It’s important that people can share what they’re materially experiencing and how they’re feeling- and recognise these can be two different things.

Beyond the frameworks and the data, we’ll need to expand the conversations we’re currently having with our residents, staff and partners to a discussion about how we collectively help each other navigate through the uncertainty and discomfort the change that Covid 19 has brought about. I’ve blogged previously about what we can learn from organisations who practice adaptive leadership to have these challenging conversations.

For the most part, people aren’t necessarily afraid of change but of the loss that it may create, and in many cases people have already lost from Covid 19, whether that’s loved ones, their livelihoods, or have had their health — physical and mental — deeply affected.

In my next blog post, I’ll explore how we can help people make sense of the lessons learned during the crisis to identify what we do next. In the meantime:

How are you tracking the impact of Covid 19 and its wider implications on your staff, residents & partners?

What types of data are you using to track this impact?

What have you learnt about how the residents & communities you work with have responded?




Head of Policy Design, Scrutiny & Partnerships @newhamlondon #localgov Co-founder of #systemschange & #servicedesign progs. inspired by @cescaalbanese