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  • Writer's pictureBecky Sarson

Can Data Literacy Keep Up With Data Availability?

The Covid-19 pandemic raised controversial themes amongst healthcare researchers and the wider public. These include the growing interest in reporting clinical trials and real world evidence. As a result, the number of real-world databases and reported statistics have skyrocketed, with eyes on them almost all the time.

The issue? Not everyone understands what they are reading. So, when news channels use inflammatory individual statistics to:

  • Describe adverse event reporting without comparison to normal incidence in vaccinations, or

  • Report percentage accuracy of COVID-19 tests without distinguishing between specificity and sensitivity.

The general public can understandably become confused. This confusion can cause a domino effect that could be potentially harmful.

Low data literacy is dangerous, good literacy is a strength.

From the volume of data being discussed online, it could be inferred that data literacy across the globe has improved. However, there is still no common understanding on what data literacy entails. Building data literacy skills in schools and universities is becoming a focus for educational institutions (Gebre, 2022). This may improve the future population, however our current audience needs quick upskilling.

A data savvy population not only safeguards against misinterpretation and sensationalism, but can improve the knowledge and data we are generating. To echo Ben Goldacre (I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that), science is all too often presented as a ‘collection of true facts’, whereas in truth, science is a discourse or ‘squabble’ (Goldacre, 2014). The scientific process is to present a theory and evidence, and to have this critically appraised by an empowered and literate community so it can be improved and refined.

An example: “Flatten the curve”

One of the first data claims that the general public started following and investigating was right at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, before vaccinations had become available to the public. Millions aimed to ‘flatten the curve,’ checking the local headlines every day. Media headlines and governments encouraged people worldwide to socially distance themselves and keep updated with the most recent statistics, locally and globally.

Most people had a general idea of what ‘flattening the curve’ meant. Nonetheless, data inconsistencies aroused suspicion in those with low data-literacy rates. Which had profound impacts on people’s attitudes to healthcare, worldwide.

The pressure to pump out data

With a global audience waiting for the latest news, and with governments and organisations attempting to create enough data to meet the rising demands under stringent time constraints, producing research at such a high rate led to a relaxation of publishing rules in certain studies. Between December 2019 and September 2020, 9,000 publications had been released on COVID-19. Readers should exercise caution with interpreting these and authors should reflect upon the validity, meaning and impact of their work before progressing to publication (Chan, et al., 2020).

This further contributes to the need for the general population, who now has access to this evidence, to develop strong critical reasoning skills when reading and interpreting this data.

A community crisis

During the pandemic, low data literacy rates and poor communication of data erupted into something particularly harmful. Thousands of people, upon misunderstanding the nuances of the statistics and data being presented as fact, began to distrust the media outlets and the wider healthcare system at large.

There was a reduced update of medications, lower vaccination rates and impassioned rebellion against safety health policies like mask mandates and social distancing protocols at a time when the population needed to be working as a collective.

Room for improvement

Researchers have argued that data literacy in terms of health, has not been emphasised enough for the role it plays in the fight against COVID-19. Data literacy is intertwined with health literacy, which is broadly defined as the ability to ‘gain access to, understand, and use information in ways that promote and maintain good health in a variety of settings across the life course.’ (Kyabaggu, Ebuwei and Ikenyei, 2022). Data literacy, and therefore health literacy, is said to be the ‘social vaccine’ for the prevention and management of the Covid-19 spread.

How can we help you?

At Twist Health, we offer bespoke services to facilitate meaningful, knowledgeable discussions around data and evidence. We believe in empowering you and your team through education.


Chan, J., Oo, S., Chor, C. Y., Yim, D., Chan, J. S., & Harky, A. (2020). COVID-19 and literature evidence: should we publish anything and everything? Acta Biomed.

Gebre, E. (2022). Conceptions and perspectives of data literacy in secondary education. British Journal of Educational Technology, 1080-1095.

Goldacre, B. (2014). I Think You'll Find it's a Bit More Complicated Than That . London: The Fourth Estate.

Kyabaggu, R., Ebuwei, P. and Ikenyei, U., (2022.) Health Literacy, Equity, and Communication in the COVID-19 Era of Misinformation: Emergence of Health Information Professionals in Infodemic Management. National Library of Medicine

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