Weekend brunch for 12 April 2020

The Harris County COVID-19 "Quadrant Map" widget of their dashboard is not helpful. (Image credit: Harris County)

[WB1] In yet another dramatic instance of government by edict, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo opted to close Harris County parks for Easter, based on the premise that large numbers of adults will not voluntarily maintain social distance and must be treated like children (or chattel). Houston mayor Sylvester Turner initially resisted the impulse with regard to closing City of Houston parks, before finally giving in.

We wish Mayor Turner had stuck to his guns, and instead engaged in education and persuasion for those not maintaining proper social distance. Ultimately, slowing the spread of the coronavirus depends on voluntary compliance with common-sense distancing and contact-reduction techniques along with diligent self-hygiene (which should include wearing a mask or other face covering in some public settings). If government actions start to feel overly punitive (say, like something put together and policed by the sorts of busybodies, nags, and scolds so typical of HOAs), leaders will lose the public. Americans (especially Texans) will not long tolerate Pinochet-style “emergency” rule that issues orders (and feels mean) rather than persuades (that we’re in this together).

Thankfully, our area has not reached the authoritarian levels of overreach that have been reported in some areas, and there are encouraging signs that Gov. Abbott would not stand for any such thing.

[WB2] Of course, the pursuit of largely unrelated political agendas continues apace. Critics of Gov. Abbott’s efforts to rein in the efforts of county judges like Lina Hidalgo to release violent criminals from jail found a Travis County judge to block his order preventing such releases – although the Texas Supreme Court quickly restored the governor’s order. The (dangerous) games look set to continue.

[WB3] Other interest groups aren’t letting the COVID-19 crisis go to waste. For example, the people who wanted to reduce your car use in Houston before the pandemic are now advocating that streets be closed because of the pandemic.

[WB4] The Houston area continues to show up in maps of various hotspots for COVID-19 numbers, when adjusting for population.

Of course, part of the problem in our area (and Texas generally) is that so few tests have been conducted and thus the data is lacking. The bigger problem is that the city and county are being overly secretive with the data they do have. The “dashboard” that local government touts with such pride breaks down cases by four major quadrants, which is basically useless. There is no way to analyze the data by test date/confirmation date, which is not helpful. There is no way to download the raw data or hit an API for it, which is also not helpful. And zip code data is currently not reflected on the dashboard (although an underwhelming zip-code PDF was generated and shared with local media over the weekend after a rash of criticism over the lack of access to such basic metadata that in no way violates personal privacy). And the best source for hospitalization data is not area government, but the journalists attempting to track down representative data.

Both the City of Houston and Harris County are doing a poor job sharing important community health data, and their dashboard work is about what one would expect from government (not that impressive – even Dallas County manages to share zip code data). The public would be much better served if these entities would release this data daily, in a downloadable or API-accessible format, and let any number of local data scientists/researchers/hobbyists pull together some much better data-analytical tools.

We’re probably not going to get to a point where we can share the level of detail that a Singapore or Hong Kong or South Korea does, but area government can do much better than it has so far.

[WB5] Maybe local government should invest in a data scientist or two to help with the task, rather than employing a professional cartoonist to put out doodling like this.

Image credit: City of Houston/twitter

While so many people are forced to stay home from work right now, it is amazing that this is considered essential work in the City of Houston (which, given the economic downturn that is coming, should have already instituted a hiring freeze and started working on furloughs).

[WB6] A number of outlets this week reported on the impact of both COVID-19 and the unprecedented oil supply/demand mismatch on the Houston and Texas economies. The effects will be deep and lingering.

[WB7] The newspaper that put out a feature on the “bright side” of the bloodletting in Houston’s major industry found space again this week for another odd personal essay. These editorial choices will continue until the downsizing begins in earnest, we suppose.

[WB8] We’ve all wondered why it’s been so hard to find toilet paper, with most people blaming “hoarders.” This is a much better explainer of what’s happening.

To quote my dad: Stay Safe and Dodge the Virus!

Kevin Whited
About Kevin Whited 4241 Articles
Kevin Whited is co-founder and publisher of blogHOUSTON. Follow him on twitter: @PubliusTX