Why The COVID Tracking Project launched a help desk – and what it learned along the wayAmanda French and Brian S.-K. Li, The COVID Tracking Project,
From May 2020 till April 2021, The COVID Tracking Project answered thousands of questions it received from community members. After initially adding a contact form for readers to share questions or express concerns, the project updated its methods of contact several times over the year to be more accurate. It also added ways for curious readers to find answers to their questions and new tools that allowed inquiries to be vetted more quickly.
In a behind-the-scenes look at their work, project leads Amanda French and Brian S.-K. Li share the different strategies they tried, how each fared and how they were able to get the average response rate down to fewer than 24 hours for messages. That included a rotating team of repliers who forwarded emails to the correct people and various team members taking shifts whenever they had time. Additionally, the text used in response to questions was often adapted into public-facing FAQs for the website.
The engagement with readers was not only a service for community members but also a critical feedback loop for The COVID Tracking Project. French and Li write, “Taking the time to investigate and respond to the issues people wrote us about wasn’t just a public service. It was a valuable feedback loop that helped us understand the data better and explain it more clearly in other contexts… The Help Desk helped us understand the ways in which our data was used and interpreted, kept us grounded in the social reality of the pandemic, taught us to explain complexities about the data, alerted us to bugs and mistakes we could correct, and reminded us of the importance of the work we were doing.”