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The Prof, who’s become a Covid-19 media fixture, will teach a new Pandemics and Information workshop

Submitted on Thursday, June 04, 2020

Assistant Professor Colin Furness says that Ontario’s failure to bring down the number of new Covid-19 cases is, in many ways, an “information problem”.

The Faculty of Information’s Colin Furness has become one of the media’s favourite pandemic explainers, giving more than 400 interviews since the coronavirus was first detected in Canada back in January. With an academic background in both public health and information and knowledge management, Furness is perfectly suited to putting the day’s Covid-19 news in context. The Assistant Professor (Teaching Stream) has done as many as 14 interviews in a single day.

Recently Furness has been highly critical of how Ontario’s been handling the crisis. “I’ve been on radio and tv being pretty strident since about mid-April,” he says. “We started really well. Then the wheels came off the bus.”

At the time of writing of this article in early June, the number of Covid-19 cases in Ontario, remains stubbornly high with hundreds of new cases reported daily. Politicians and public health officials have also been unable to explain to the public why the situation is failing to improve.

Furness’s diagnosis is that “this pandemic in Ontario is in many respects an information problem.” The responsible organizations failed to collect the data they needed to figure out who was sick and where, he says. In his assessment, testing was too limited, result tracking was too slow, and data was often incomplete, flawed or non-existent.

“Early on, Ontario used simulation models to predict what could happen and how bad things could get, and that drove the wise decision to lock down the province in March,” says Furness. “But none of the decision-making that followed was based on analyzing real data.” As a result, Ontario failed to adjust its testing strategy for nearly three months, he said.

“Only from real data could we have learned how much Covid has been spreading asymptomatically. Simulations enable guess-work while real data enable learning, knowing, and effective decision making.”

In a new workshop on Pandemics and Information (INF1005/1006) to be offered during the upcoming winter semester, Furness will take a deeper dive into the issues he’s been talking about in the media. “We’ll look at the role of information in decision making and the outcomes we’re seeing in different jurisdictions,” he says.

Using COVID-19 as a context for analysis, students will explore five main topics ranging from measuring disease in populations to pandemics and misinformation. They will also identify and analyze a country or region where the creation, use, or management of information played a pivotal role in achieving a positive or negative outcome in the fight against Covid-19.

Furness’s interest in health was piqued after completing his PhD at the Faculty of Information when he went to work in industry, taking a position with an infection control software start-up. Not long into the job, he found that colleagues didn’t have the same respect for his social science background that they did for those from the biomedical sphere. He returned to university as a part-time student, eventually earning a Master’s degree in epidemiology at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, where he now holds a cross appointment.

Furness believes that one of the reasons that the media has been so eager to hear from him is that he brings a biomedical perspective as well as critical social science one. “Both the social science lens and the biomedical lens have blind spots,” he says, but bringing them together helps explain the issues in ways that make sense to both non-specialist students and a broader public.

While Furness’s friends have been ribbing him about constantly showing up in their living rooms – on the TV screen – he’s been happy to do his bit to help spread knowledge about the pandemic. He also points out that politicians react to media coverage, which, in turn, can influence policy. “You light a fire under them,” he says.

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