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The mystery behind the Worldometer data aggregation site

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The mystery behind the Worldometer data aggregation site

MADRID – On April 28, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez stood alone on the stage of a bright but empty briefing room. When a CNN reporter asked a question via video link, the prime minister seemed very concentrated, scribbling notes and pausing to look at the monitor just once. As he launched the answer, he looked directly at the camera to brag about the volume of Covid-19 Spanish testing.

“We are one of the countries with the highest number of tests,” Sánchez said.

Initially, the prime minister cited data from the recent Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) ranking which ranked Spain eighth in the Covid-19 test among its members.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez answers reporters’ questions during a press conference on April 28, 2020. Credit: Moncloa Palace

“Today,” he added, “we have found another study, from Johns Hopkins University, that […] we ranked fifth in the world in total tests conducted. “

There are only two problems: OECD data is wrong. And while some sources put Spain in fifth place in the total test volume, Johns Hopkins is not one of them; the study cited by Sánchez does not exist.

But two weeks later, the Spanish government supported the substance of the prime minister’s claim. Instead of quoting Johns Hopkins, Spanish officials now point to testing the ranking of the so-called data aggregation website Worldometer – one of the sources behind the university’s widely cited coronavirus dashboard – and raises questions about why some respected governments and institutions choose to trust sources about what is little known.

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The Covid-19 pandemic has increased the popularity of the Worldometer. In the past six months, the page has been distributed about 2.5 million times – up from only 65 shares in the first six months of 2019, according to statistics from BuzzSumo. Credit: Worldometer

Before the pandemic, the Worldometer was famous for its “counters”, which gave direct estimates of numbers such as the world’s population or the number of cars produced this year. His website shows that the revenue comes from advertising and licenses the counters. The Covid-19 crisis has undoubtedly increased the popularity of the website. This is one of the top ranking Google search results for coronavirus statistics. In the past six months, the Worldometer page has been distributed about 2.5 million times – up from only 65 shares in the first six months of 2019, according to statistics provided by BuzzSumo, a company that tracks social media engagement and provides insight into content.

The title of the icon that can be accessed

Question the reliability of this coronavirus statistics site 3:36

The website claims “run by a team of developers, researchers and international volunteers” and “published by small, independent digital media companies based in the United States.”

But public records show little evidence about a company that employs a team of multilingual analysts and researchers. It is not clear whether the company has paid staff to check its data for accuracy or whether it only relies on automation and crowdsourcing. This site has at least one job post, starting in October, look for voluntary web developers.

After being known as Worldometers, this website was originally created in 2004 by Andrey Alimetov, a new 20-year-old immigrant from Russia who had just gotten his first IT job in New York.

“It’s a very simple website, there’s nothing crazy about it,” he recently told CNN.

In about a year, Alimetov said, the site gets 20,000 or 30,000 visits every day but it costs too much money for web hosting fees.

“There is no quick way to quickly cash out,” he said, so he registered the site on eBay and sold it for $ 2,000 around 2005 or 2006.

Change hands

When the Reddit website featured Worldometer in 2013, its founder sent an email to a new owner, a man named Dario, to congratulate him. Dario said he bought the site to drive traffic to another website.


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Source: Andrey Alimetov

When the Reddit homepage displayed its old site in 2013, Alimetov sent an e-mail to the buyer, a man named Dario, to congratulate him.

In the answer, Dario said he bought the site to drive traffic to other websites.

When the businesses “began to decline, I decided to invest in a Worldometer, bringing resources and people to the point of taking their own course,” Dario wrote.

The worldometer no longer bears the trace “s” except in the URL. Apart from that, not much has changed.

Today, the Worldometer website owned by a company called Dadax LLC.

Representatives for Worldometer and Dadax did not respond to CNN’s request for an interview, but a state business report showed Dadax was first formed in Delaware, in 2002. The filing included the PO box as a company address. From 2003 to 2015, business submissions in Connecticut and New Jersey registered Dadax president as Dario Pasqualino. The filing address binds the company and Pasqualino to homes in Princeton, New Jersey, and Greenwich, Connecticut. The company is still actively registered in Delaware and has been in good standing since 2010.

The company shares the name Dadax with a software company based in Shanghai. In March, the two companies issued a statement rejecting connections. Dadax China said it was issued his statement after receiving “lots of calls and emails” about site statistics. Worldometer, in a tweet, said it had never had “any type of affiliation with entities based in China.”

The ID in the source code for Worldometer and the US Dadax website links it to at least two dozen other websites that appear to share ownership. Some don’t seem to work. Others, such as usalivestats.com, italiaora.org and stopthehunger.com, share the same premise: direct statistical counters. Most sites have rudimentary aesthetics, reminiscent of the internet of the 1990s or early 2000s. Some seem to be quite random. An Italian site displays Christmas poetry and gift suggestions, such as a bonsai plant (for her), or a piece of land on the moon (for her). Another site dedicated to Sicilian doll shows.

Someone with Pasqualino’s name and birthday is also registered as the sole owner in Italy. The business manages and sells “advertising space,” according to an Italian registration document submitted last year. The address led to a neat three-story apartment building on a lush street in an upscale neighborhood in Bologna.

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Someone named Dario Pasqualino is registered as the sole owner in Italy. The address listed leads to a neat three-story apartment building on a lush street in an upscale neighborhood in Bologna. Credit: Google

CNN cannot reach Pasqualino through the contact information listed on the Worldometer and in public records.

According to the Worldometer website, Covid-19 data comes from a multilingual team that “monitors live broadcasts of press conferences” all day “and through crowdsourcing.

Visitors can report Covid-19 numbers and new data sources to the website – no name or email address is required. “The team of analysts and researchers” validated the data, the website said. This might, at first, sound like Wikipedia from the data world, but some Wikipedia editors have decided to avoid Worldometer as a source for Covid-19 data.

“Some updates have no source, do not match the source cited or contain errors,” wrote one editor, with the username MarioGom, writing in discussion page for Wikipedia editors who worked on Covid-19 related content last month. “Some errors are small and temporary, but some are relatively large and have never been fixed.”

The editor, whose real name is Mario Gómez, told CNN in an email, “Instead of trying to use consistent criteria, [Worldometer] seems to go for the highest number. They have a system for users to report higher numbers, but so far I have failed to use them to report that some numbers are wrong and must be lower. “

Edouard Mathieu, data manager for Our World in Data (OWID), an independent statistics website headquartered at Oxford University, has seen a similar trend.

“Their main focus seems to have the latest numbers no matter where they come from, whether it is reliable or not, whether it is sourced or not,” he said. “We think the public must be vigilant, especially the media, policy makers, and decision makers. This data is not as accurate as they thought. “

Virginia Pitzer, Yale University epidemiologist who focuses on modeling the spread of Covid-19 in the United States, said she had never heard of the Worldometer. CNN asked him to assess the reliability of the website.

“I think the Worldometer website is legitimate,” he wrote via email, explaining that many of its sources appear to be credible government websites. But he also found deficiencies, inconsistencies and lack of expert curation. “Data interpretation is still lacking,” he wrote, explaining that he found data about active cases to be “very problematic” because data about recovery was not reported consistently.

Pitzer also found several detailed explanations of the problems or differences in reporting data. For Spain, that is one sentence. For many other countries, there is no explanation at all.

He also found fault. In Spanish data, for example, the Worldometer reported more than 18,000 recoveries on April 24. The Spanish government reported 3,105 recoveries that day.

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Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez delivered a speech at the time of the question in the Lower House in Madrid on 13 May 2020. Credit: Andres Ballesteros / AFP / Pool / Getty Images

When Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez boasted about Spain’s high ranking, he did not pull the numbers out of the air. On April 27, the OECD incorrectly placed Spain eighth in per capita testing. Initially, OECD used data from OWID to be compiled the statistics. But it’s a source of Spanish numbers independently because OWID data is incomplete. Mixed sources change Spain’s position in the ranking because it calculates a wider test category than other countries’ figures. Organization corrected myself the next day, two hours before the Sánchez press conference, crashed Spain into 17th place.

In his statementThe OECD said “we regret the confusion created on sensitive issues by any debate on methodological issues” and stressed that increasing the availability of testing in general was more important than knowing where the ranking of any country was.

Sánchez’s later reference to the Johns Hopkins study, in which he said Spain ranked fifth for testing worldwide, appeared to be a case of diverse attribution by the prime minister. JHU has not published international testing figures. Jill Rosen, a school spokesman, told CNN that the university could not identify a report that matched Sánchez’s description.

At a press conference on May 9, Sánchez avoided CNN questions that urged him about the existence of the JHU study and registered government figures about total testing As a replacement. In comments made to Spanish reporters the following day, health minister Salvador Illa continued to insist that testing data had been released by JHU, even though he pointed to the Worldometer as the underlying source. Because Johns Hopkins got his data from the Worldometer, he argues, it’s just as good.

“This is data provided by John Hopkins University […] taken from as a fundamental source of information, the Worldometer website, “Illa said. “You can check it.”

It is true that on April 28, Worldometer data ranked Spain fifth when it came to total testing volumes. At that time, the OWID data also ranked Spain fifth, but as more countries began to report greater testing volumes, it became clear how the Worldometer data was flawed. The Spanish figures include a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, which shows whether the patient is currently infected, and an antibody test, which shows whether the patient has been infected. For most countries other than Spain, Worldometer data seems to only count PCR tests.

Because so few countries report antibody testing data and to ensure the comparison of apples with apples, OWID says it only tracks PCR tests. With that measure, on May 17, Spain ranks sixth, behind the US, Russia, Germany, Italy and India. Worldometer ranked Spain fourth.

But relying on ranking with the number of raw tests conducted is still misleading because it does not take into account population differences between countries.

OWID data manager, Edouard Mathieu, said a far more fair way to compare test data was to take into account population size. On May 10, OWID put Spain 19th in testing per 1,000 people. Worldometer ranked Spain 15th in the same size.

The story of two ranks

Worldometer data does rank Spain fifth in terms of total testing volume. But relying on raw numbers is misleading because it doesn’t take into account differences between countries. When adjusted for population, Spain’s ranking dropped to 16th. Experts say this data, from the Worldometer, is further flawed because Spanish numbers calculate a broader test category than most other countries.

Top 20 countries by …

Tests are conducted per 1 million population

Data as of May 18, 2020

Source: Worldometer

Roberto Rodríguez Aramayo, a research professor at the Spanish Institute of Philosophy of the National Research Council (CSIC) and former president of the Spanish ethics association, said Spain reported data from the two types of tests that were the most reliable.

“Unfortunately, it seems certain [political] interested in the readings given from this data, when they are displayed, “he said.

What does Worldometer have to do with Johns Hopkins University?

Johns Hopkins has not published international data on Covid-19 testing, but lists the Worldometer as one of several sources the widely quoted coronavirus dashboard.

The university has refused to say what specific data points are the mainstay of the Worldometer, but problems with the counter data site have caused at least one important error.

On April 8, the global tally of Covid-19 cases confirmed by JHU briefly passed 1.5 million before dropping by more than 30,000. Johns Hopkins then posted an explanation for the incident on the GitHub page. At the time, JHU told CNN that the error appeared to stem from double counting of nursing home cases in France. But French officials told CNN that there was no revision, even for nursing home data. Johns Hopkins data seem to come directly from the Worldometer. Website does not specify source.

One of Wikipedia’s editors, James Heilman, assistant clinical professor of emergency medicine at the University of British Columbia, said Wikipedia volunteers have seen persistent errors with the Worldometer, but also with “a more well-known name with a longer history of accuracy,” referring to Johns Hopkins. “We hope they also double check the numbers.”

Johns Hopkins response

Read Johns Hopkins University’s full response to CNN’s questions for this story.


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Source: Johns Hopkins University

In an article published in February, JHU said it began manually tracking Covid-19 data for its dashboard in January. When it becomes unsustainable, universities begin to collect data from major sources and aggregation websites. Laura Gardner, engineering professor who manages the Covid-19 university dashboard, told CNN at a statement that universities use a “two-stage anomaly detection system” to capture potential data problems. “Medium” changes are automatically added to the dashboard but marked so staff can check them in real time. Changes outside certain limits require “humans to check and approve values ​​manually before being published to the dashboard,” Gardner said.

The university’s dependence on the Worldometer surprised a number of academics.

Phil Beaver, a data scientist at the University of Denver, seemed lost for words when asked what he thought of JHU quoting the Worldometer.

“I’m not sure, that’s a good question, I kind of get the impression that Worldometer is relying on [Johns] Hopkins, “he told CNN after a long pause.

Mathieu also looked surprised.

“I think JHU has been under a lot of pressure to update their numbers,” he said. “Because of this pressure, they are forced or given incentives to get data from places they should not have, but in general I hope JHU will become a fairly reliable source.”

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Johns Hopkins has not yet published international data on Covid-19 testing, but the Worldometer list is one of the most widely cited sources for the coronavirus dashboard. Credit: Johns Hopkins University

In a university response to CNN, Gardner said the Worldometer was one of “dozens” of sources and that “before entering new sources, we validated their data by comparing it with other references.”

“We try not to use a single source for our data,” Gardner added. “We use reporting from public health agencies and sources of aggregation to validate cross-figures.”

The Spanish government and Johns Hopkins are not alone in quoting the Worldometer. Website quoted by Financial time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Fox News and CNN.

The British government quoted Worldometer data on Covid-19’s death during its daily press conference for much of April, before turning to Johns Hopkins data.

“Both Worldometer and John Hopkins provide comprehensive and respected data. As the situation develops, we transfer from the Worldometer to John Hopkins because John Hopkins relies more on official sources, “said a statement from a spokesman for the British government.

‘Contaminating public opinion’

In Spain, John Hopkins’ apparent misunderstanding from Sánchez has become a major controversy. In parliament on Wednesday, lawmakers from the center-right People’s Party Cayetana Alvarez de Toledo called the party’s government “a lie for CNN and the people of Spain.”

On May 10, a spokesman for the Spanish embassy in London complained to CNN about its coverage of the issue.

“Back in April, Sánchez mentioned an analysis of statistical data carried out by Johns Hopkins University based on data published by Worldometer,” the spokeswoman wrote in an email sent to the network’s diplomatic editor just after 4am.

“Even if Mr. Sánchez does not mention the Worldometer as the main source in his remarks, [CNN] can know that most of the comparisons and analyzes about Covid-19 are used in the world [Worldometer’s] table. “

In his remarks to CNN, a spokesman for the prime minister’s office acknowledged that the Worldometer counted PCR tests and antibody tests together and rejected calls for criticism to adjust testing numbers for the population, calling it a “trap that was by the OECD and the Spanish press. […] has fallen into “and argues that Spain should not be compared to small countries like Malta, Luxembourg or Bahrain.

However, it is not clear why the Spanish government continues to insist that test data published by Worldometer be issued by Johns Hopkins University.

His refusal to acknowledge the attribution error occurred only a month after Spanish Justice Minister Juan Carlos Campo said the government was considering amending the law, trying to crack down on people peddling misinformation.

“I believe, it is more than justified – with calmness, calmness needed for any changes to the law – that we are reviewing our legal instruments to stop public opinion that contaminates seriously and unfairly,” Campo said.

At the time, Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth told CNN in an email, “If the justice minister suggests punishing speeches that pollute public opinion, that would be very dangerous.”

“Turning the government into a censor will weaken public accountability at the most immediate time,” Roth warned.

In its letter to CNN, the embassy’s spokesman stated emphatically that Spain – and still is – the fifth in the world in the Covid-19 test, attached a screenshot of the Worldometer table as evidence.

“The numbers speak louder than words,” he wrote. “And do not want to admit the truth of reality […] very worrying, to say the least. “

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