People Power: Tracking COVID-19 government policies around the world using a citizen-science approach

How the idea to track government COVID-19 policies from around the globe was conceived and continues to grow with the power of volunteer data contributors.

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It could be the opening line of a corny joke…  “What do you get when you lockdown a bunch of professors and public policy students in the middle of a global pandemic?” But the reality is no joke at all – the pandemic and ‘lockdown’ were real, and the resulting project would continue to gain momentum one year on… 

The Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker (OxCGRT)1 was launched in March 2020 with a desire and curiosity to know what actions countries and governments around the world were taking to combat the ever-growing pandemic. Conceived by a group of public policy students and academics at the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government (BSG) the goal was to answer unknown questions such as – “Why are governments doing different things to prevent COVID-19?”; “What policies are they implementing?”; “How long will we be locked down?”; and – most importantly, “Are these policies working?”

Since then, the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker has grown exponentially, both in content and headcount. It now collects data on 20 unique policy indicators for 187 countries, regions and territories and 105 subnational units (Brazil, US, Canada and UK – with more to come). To date, the OxCGRT has amassed more than 3.8 million hand-coded data points (as of April 26, 2021).

Emphasis should be placed on hand-coded data points. With a small army of over 600 volunteer data contributors, the OxCGRT is a prime example of ‘citizen science’. Individuals from over the globe, speaking 90 different languages and with varied academic backgrounds, have painstakingly collected and entered data into the OxCGRT database. Trapped at makeshift desks in bedrooms of cramped houses and apartments during ‘lockdowns’; students, professors, researchers and concerned citizens volunteered together as a way to both feel useful and to combat an invisible enemy as the world closed down around them.

I should know – I was one of them.

While I am now a research assistant with the OxCGRT, a little over a year ago I myself volunteered to help with the data-collection efforts. An alumna of the Blavatnik School of Government, I had just resigned from my job with a large corporate consultancy and, due to the pandemic, the job I was about to begin ceased to exist. At loose ends, using my academic and research background to contribute to a worthy cause seemed like a good way to spend my newly found free time.

I’m not unique - in a crisis situation, many people find comfort and solace in having a purpose, volunteering their time or in giving back.2 A Relief Web report in December 2020 indicated that many international organisations have had record surges of new volunteer recruits in response to COVID-19.3 The Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker provided the outlet I needed for my desire to feel productive and useful in a situation that has made many of us feel helpless. It also satisfied my academic hunger to understand what the world was doing in response. Clearly, I wasn’t alone.

An initial call for volunteer data collectors went out to alumni of the Blavatnik School, then to the wider University of Oxford community. As time marched on, we have managed to recruit volunteers from all over the globe and from numerous other institutions and associations. 

The addition of new countries, new indicators and sub-national units to the dataset has driven volunteer recruitment, and allowed for those with specific interests to engage, and remain engaged. Noticeable drops in volunteer availability occur during holiday periods, university exams, and as volunteers slowly return to their day-jobs after transient periods off (Figure 1). It is only by understanding the motivations of the volunteers that we can continue to keep the project moving and to expand the reach and resolution of the data we collect.

Figure 1. Weekly contributor numbers fluctuate at predictable times throughout the year. 

While the Oxford brand and association has been a likely extrinsic motivator for some of our volunteers, weekly catch-up calls with the contributors have demonstrated that intrinsic motivators such as a sense of purpose, being part of a community, and intellectual curiosity and challenge have been the key ingredients for long-term involvement. In addition to the ability to contribute to salient research that is published in real-time, we offer our volunteers recognition (all contributor names are published on our website)4, opportunities to get involved in publications and analysis, a bi-weekly research analysis seminar series, industry and world-leading guest speakers at each weekly contributor check-in, and a dedicated team of research assistants to support and advise on data entry and interpretation.

Our volunteer data collectors are highly accomplished in their outside lives, but their accomplishments do not usually include experience in recording systematic policy data. Accordingly, we have implemented a rigorous training scheme and strong oversight to ensure and maintain high data-quality assurance – an issue not uncommon in citizen science.5

With over a year past since the launch of the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker, we continue to capture the ever-increasing variation in government policies related to the pandemic. As vaccines continue to be approved and distributed in countries, we have had to adapt – adding more indicators to better capture this new data. We have forged valuable partnerships with governments and international organisations to assist them with COVID-19 policy surveillance and vaccine distribution tracking. We have also been able to advertise short-term consultancy work and paid internships with global organisations to our large pool of volunteers – enabling some to further their academic careers and providing yet another motivator to continue engaging with the project.

Our recently published paper with Nature Human Behaviour6 may have been written by the core research team, but the credit must go to those who have helped us achieve it. The positive and welcoming research community we have fostered has undoubtedly enabled us thus far to increase the productivity of our volunteers. But as global vaccine coverage increases and lockdowns roll-back in some countries, for many volunteers, time spent working on the OxCGRT will be competing against previously prohibited activities like sport and in-person socialising. As these global lockdown disparities increase, the need to capture the changing COVID-19 policies and realities will be even more important than ever – requiring us to continue to find innovative ways of motivating, engaging and maintaining our volunteer data contributor team.

Built on citizen science, the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker aims to gather information to aid better policymaking by allowing researchers to better understand the impact of policy on human behaviour. But in the process, we as a team have had to learn a huge amount about the nature of human behaviour in order to build a global community of volunteers united by a common purpose and operating with scientific rigour. 

If you are interested in finding out how you can be part of our project, please contact: coviddata@bsg.ox.ac.uk

Emily Cameron-Blake (words) and Andrew Wood (images, editing) are Research Assistants with the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford.


1 https://covidtracker.bsg.ox.ac.uk  

2 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/09/well/mind/coronavirus-resilience-psychology-anxiety-stress-volunteering.html

3 https://reliefweb.int/report/world/red-cross-and-red-crescent-societies-report-massive-surge-volunteer-numbers-response

4 https://covidtracker.bsg.ox.ac.uk

5 https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-07106-5

6 https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-021-01079-8 


Emily Cameron-Blake

Research Assistant, University of Oxford, Blavatnik School of Government