A note from the COVID-19 Data Hero Awards program organizer


The time I’ve spent processing nominations, interviewing nominees, writing their profiles, and working with our panel to select winners of our Inaugural COVID-19 Data Hero Awards left me truly grateful.

With the wealth of resources across the United States and Canada, from a college student tracking cases in the White House to a pediatrician developing and communicating vaccines, I can imagine no greater range of talents than those we showcase in this program.

When I made the decision to start this program in January 2021, I envisioned it as a way to build a map or master directory of sorts so that the public and other experts could learn from those who have made data communication central to their efforts during COVID-19.

While I have spoken to a handful of the people on this list in the past, and have heard of a few dozen more, even I did not appreciate how hard people from all backgrounds and levels of expertise, with limited resources or minimal notoriety, were conquering the virus in their communities through effective communication of data and science. 

As the awards portion of our program closes, our directory will continue to grow, so please nominate whoever has been a data hero for you during this pandemic for recognition on our site.

The purpose of this program has always been recognition, not competition. The awards allow us to highlight 26 exceptional data communicators and advocates, but that in no way means that every other person submitted is not equally deserving of praise.

Some of those who we considered as finalists graciously bowed out, wanting to remain in the program but yielding the spotlight to those who have been under cloudier skies. 

And while we received nominations for brave heroes like Dr. Cleavon Gilman, who lost his job for simply telling the public that Arizona had no staffed ICU beds, and devoted volunteers like those behind the vaccine-alerts.com project in Oklahoma, we tried to maintain our focus in consideration of the final awards — those who made data, data-driven analysis and science the center of their public communications.

We broke up our list of nominees into five categories. Within each group you’ll find a range of expertise, experience and personalities. We wanted our finalists to represent their peers, while acknowledging the handful who stood out among them.

In the end, the decision to select just one hero per group to recognize as a “winner” became too difficult. So for each cohort of heroes, we decided to recognize a winner, a runner-up, and all other nominees with a reward for their efforts. We also want to reward those who won the public vote through online voting, which more than 35,000 unique IP addresses cast ballots for.

Online Voting Winners:

The NewcomersRachel Woodul (North Carolina)
The PressMary Landers (Georgia)
The ProfessionalsMatthew Holloway (Missouri)
The SpecialistsDr. Emily Smith (Texas)
The ProvocateursRyan Imgrund (Ontario, Canada)

We also decided to honor three data hero nominees who have spent the last year working on COVID-19 in public service or as volunteers. 

After all awards are given, our program will give $10,000 in awards to our finalists – far beyond our original budget of $3,000, but worth every penny.

I have discovered so many amazing new people through this program, and I hope you will, too.

Congratulations to all of our nominees, finalists and winners. The community of resources built during COVID-19 should be widely recognized and celebrated for the efforts they put into this unprecedented time. 

Thank you,

Rebekah Jones

Note: All award recipients will be announced at 5:00 PM Eastern Time on Wednesday, March 31, 2021, here on our website and on Twitter.

Matthew Holloway

The Professionals Cohort (Missouri)

Matthew Holloway received 15% of the thousands of nominations submitted. No other nominee comes close.

Matthew Holloway (Missouri)

“I do think the efforts here in Missouri have been remarkable,” Matthew said. “I certainly never intended or expected to find myself in the position I am in. When LPHAs across the state started contacting me with their numbers, I knew I’d be locked in to doing this for a while.”

“I started this project due to a lack of public communication relating to COVID-19 cases and deaths across Missouri, which were being grossly undercounted from the Missouri Governor’s office. I established relationships with administrators and leaders from health departments and hospitals across the state who were also in pursuit of comprehensive and accurate data. I provide (sometimes far too lengthy) text and visual updates at least five nights a week (7 days a week for the first 7 months) through Facebook, and have a little over 15,000 followers signed up. My goal has always been to provide the most accurate possible data in a manner that is accessible and understandable for all Missouri citizens to feel empowered to make informed decisions in the way they choose to respond to the pandemic.”

Click here to see Matthew’s Missouri COVID-19 data site.
Click here to see Matthew’s Facebook page.
Click here to follow Matthew on Twitter

While we work on getting our interview with Matthew up on the site, we’re going to let some (but certainly not all) of those who submitted Matthew do the talking:

“Not sure 1,000 characters are enough, but I’ll try: on a completely volunteer basis–and mostly on his own–Matthew has collated, organized, and shared data that would be (and should have been) the work of one or more state health departments, and has gone over and above to keep the people of Missouri aware of what’s happening in our state at a time when politics and other factors limited what was shared with the public. Matthew has done all of this while keeping a day job, having a young family, adding to that family, and experiencing his first pandemic like the rest of us. I can think of no better person for the award!!! Just go to his Facebook posts to see the time, energy, passion, and talent he’s put into this volunteer project, and you’ll see why so many people have come to rely on him to keep informed. He IS A TRUE COVID-19 DATA HERO! Now, is there an “Honorable Mention” category, because if there is, his wife deserves a lot of credit for supporting him in all this!”

“I feel like Matthew has been there for us since day one. Even though his Covid event, working a full time job, and raising a family, he has always been there! He is raw with us. Completely open and honest and someone that I felt that I could trust when there was no other site to turn to. I mean he definitely didn’t sugarcoat anything for us and that is what we needed, not only as a community or state, but a nation. We needed the facts. I could go on and on, but he simply is the best of the best! And his humor, well that helped me a many of rough nights when all the numbers were so overwhelming. Great Matthew. You should be so proud of all your hardwork and dedication! :-)”

“Matthew has single handedly created a Missouri covid information system available to his friends and followers on Facebook. As the project got more difficult he organized help from health departments. My husband is a physician running a covid unit. He knows Matthew personally and believes in his integrity. That’s all I needed to trust in him and his reporting.”

“The state of Missouri’s covid dashboard is junk. It’s thousands and thousands and thousands of cases behind in reporting the numbers to the residents of Missouri. Every night, Matthew gathers the Covid case and death data from each and every of the 117 jurisdictions in MO and compiles the info into graphics to let Missourians know what the actual Covid situation is like. The work he does is AMAZING. And he does this for free, after his day job, every single day, for almost a year now. He saw a need, and he jumped up and made a difference. He’s truly a hero.”

“Although I currently live in Miami Florida, Matthew Holloway lives in Joplin Missouri, which is the city I was born in. I occasionally visit Missouri, and Matthew provides me and my friends in Missouri the most complete tracking of COVID-19 infections and deaths for each of Missouri’s 114 counties, plus two other jurisdictions, including St. Louis. By providing a daily running total of new infections and deaths in each county, his updates help people to adjust their activities accordingly. He also shows the percentage of residents in various counties who have received their first vaccination and the overall percentage of Missouri residents who have received their first (12.8%) and second shots (6.6%). Matthew is very impressed with the daily communication provided by the St. Louis Metropolitan COVID-19 task force, but not as impressed with the communication that has been provided at a state level. He has attempted to compensate for this, and I think he has done an excellent job!”

“When the state of Missouri failed its residents, Matthew picked up the slack and started providing sound data and visualizations along with neutral narrative that allowed the every day person to understand the state of COVID across our state. Not only has his narrative been informational, Matthew never restricted his good humor and candidness providing none stop smiles and laughs during such a down and dark year. I should also mention that this is not his job and he purely does this out of the goodness of his heart, which speaks volumes to his character and how deserving he is this reward!!!”

“Matthew’s data has been consistent daily, since March 2020. He meticulously sources his data in a transparent way, that anyone can check, as he lists them. His graphs and information have been available to the nearby city councils, and clinics, anyone who needs data points to get across the seriousness and local statistics. This information has influenced so many in their COVID mitigation efforts and daily planning. He is courteous to a fault, with naysayers, simply acknowledging them, but not taking it personally. His facts help one weed through the misinformation and skewing of information. He gives praise where credit is due. All of this has been done as a VOLUNTEER, because of his dedication to providing this service to his community. All while raising a family and working. He also experienced COVID himself and his own family, while doing the project, and still continued data during that time when he was able. He this has immense empathy for those who have or will experience it.”

“Has taken it upon himself to be the most reliable, transparent, trustworthy source of information on COVID-19 in Missouri early 2020. I am a healthcare worker and his data has been invaluable to me at a time when so many things were unsure. I always knew I could trust Matt’s information, that it was not biased and it was the best sources. It helped me make informed decisions to protect myself, my family, and my patients.”

“I’ve been following Matthew’s Facebook posts since March or April of last year, and I immediately appreciated that he was presenting the data in a way that was much more accessible and understandable. As the summer wore on, I started following my local health department sites, so I volunteered to Matthew that I’d be happy to collect the numbers from the counties all around me. I joined his little team in September. The value of his work became even more apparent when the state data was transferred from the DHSS to an independent contractor for a hefty sum, no doubt. The numbers mysteriously started to fall way behind what our health departments were reporting. Matthew data had always been ahead of the state numbers, but now the difference was profound. I appreciate Matthew’s sense of humor, how he shares himself with us all, and how careful he is not to say anything that is too political so as not to alienate people. It’s an honor to help him. I wish his work wasn’t needed, but it is.”

Click here to see Matthew’s Missouri COVID-19 data site.
Click here to see Matthew’s Facebook page.
Click here to follow Matthew on Twitter

Dr. Ferial Pearson

The Provocateurs Cohort (Nebraska)

Dr. Ferial Pearson (Nebraska)

Dr. Ferial Pearson is an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where she specializes in teacher education.

Dr. Pearson has earned three national and several local awards for her work in education and social justice, including the Kennedy Center’s Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher award. She is the founder of the Secret Kindness Agents Project, which is the subject of two published books, her dissertation, and a TEDx Talk. The project is in over 500 K-16 schools worldwide and has been highlighted by Hallmark, Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation, and SPLC’S Learning for Justice Magazine.

Her decorated tenure as a leader in public education kept her alert to public disinformation regarding COVID-19 in schools.

“When the pandemic began, I noticed that there was a lack of data coming from the school districts about where cases were, the number of cases, the lack of mitigation efforts and resources in local schools, etc.,” Ferial said. “Soon, school employees and families began sending me their stories, the emails they were getting from schools about cases, and how they are feeling about what is really going on. I publish all this on my Facebook page after verifying they are true, and I will blur out people’s faces and names to protect identities.”

Much like Florida, Nebraska never issued a mask mandate, and there’s no consistent policy on when or why schools should open partially or completely.

“They also do not seek input from teachers or the community or look at actual data about whether or not it is truly safe to have hundreds of children and teachers in a school building that is not properly ventilated,” she said. “I hear from custodians, teachers, administrators, school bus drivers, cafeteria workers, students, family members, and school nurses. “

“We are hoping that getting the truth out there will at the very least make more parents choose to keep their kids at home, and at the most, convince public officials to do the right thing and keep our school communities safe. Unfortunately, many people in power – including superintendents – have contacted my dean and senior vice chancellor asking them to censor me online and accusing me of stirring up drama with misinformation.

“However, I have kept the evidence, and have had to stand up to my administration about my right to post as a private citizen, parent, and concerned community member. Getting in trouble at work will not stop me from posting as I refuse to be complicit with abusive behavior towards school employees.”

A few words from those who nominated Ferial:

“She has fearlessly, after repeated retribution and complaints from district administrators across Nebraska, continued to share information regarding the spread of COVID and the lack of safety in schools locally and nationally, as well as the lack of safety at local businesses in Omaha and Lincoln metropolitan areas. She has become the voice for those without one, often receiving posts from teachers and other workers about their working conditions, and she posts it all for them anonymously. Without her, few would know about the state of COVID in schools. She is not yet tenured, but is on the tenure track at the University of Nebraska at Omaha in the College of Education, and is literally risking her career due to her activism. I can think of no one more deserving, nor anyone for whom this award would be more impactful, than for Dr. Ferial Pearson.”

Micah Pollak

The Professionals Cohort (Indiana)

Micah Pollak (Indiana)

Micah Pollak still remembers his first tweet about COVID-19 data in Indiana from March 22.

Indiana launched a poorly-formatted red-dot map, with one red dot for every county that had reported cases with no other information, as the only initial public resource for the public.

“I was looking back at some of my earliest Tweets on Covid and one was something like ‘I couldn’t find the graph I wanted so I made it myself,’ and I think that captures why a lot of us got into this in the first place,” Micah said.

What the state was putting out wasn’t enough.

Micah found the data presentation inadequate, sometimes misleading, and not answering urgent, basic questions. So he started exploring data on his own and then shared his analysis on Twitter, not expecting it to pick up the popularity or following he now has.

Micah is an associate professor of economics and the Director of the Center for Economic Education & Research (CEER) at Indiana University Northwest. So epidemiology was outside of his comfort zone, he said. What he did feel comfortable doing, though, was advanced statistics and data communication about what was happening.

“With so much happening outside our control during this global pandemic, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and powerless,” Micah said. “By analyzing and reporting on COVID-19 data, with a special focus on my state and local region, I can empower people through a better understanding of what is happening in the world around them to regain their confidence and make informed decisions about their daily life.”

He’s passionate about education and serving his community, and sees his time during COVID-19 as an effort in cutting through the chaos and conspiracies to bring valuable data and analysis to the forefront.

He’d be remiss not to mention his frequent partner-in-data, Gabriel Bosslet, another one of our nominees in our Specialists group.

A few words from those who nominated Micah:

“Takes what is sometimes dry, confusing, gobblygook information and makes it interesting and easy to understand, and includes some much needed levity during these trying times.”

“The state of Indiana has not provided reliable information and Micah put everything in perspective as a parent, family member, and professional. “

Click here to follow Micah on Twitter
Click here to visit Micah’s website

Karen Kasler

The Press Cohort (Ohio)

Karen Kasler (Ohio)

Karen Kasler manages a team of four journalists who cover the Ohio Statehouse for the state’s public radio and TV stations.

Every single member of Karen’s team was nominated more than once, a testament to her ability to not only analyze and communicate complex data regarding COVID-19, but also to build and lead a team that does data journalism right.

“The idea that I’m doing calculations and dealing with stats and data – and enjoying it – would STUN my high school math teachers,” Karen joked, noting how much work went into giving the numbers and then telling the stories behind those numbers.

She’s been tracking confirmed cases and deaths since March 9, 2020, investigating issues related to data integrity within the state. She covers everything from schools, to nursing home deaths, to vaccination issues, and changes in state policy.

She posts a data update for Ohio to her Twitter page every day at about 2 PM CT, as soon as the state’s data comes out.

“Through radio and TV stories, we’ve talked to doctors and experts about COVID deniers and nursing home staff rejecting the vaccine, to families devastated by loss and workers who can’t get unemployment benefits, and to struggling business owners and to lawmakers about public safety versus the push to “open up Ohio”.

Her stories always put data front and center, adjacent to the scientific and political voices swirling around information access and transparency.

“I’ve been tracking nursing homes for a while,” she said. “At one point, more than 70% of deaths were in those facilities. The state hasn’t made it easy because they count deaths before April 15 and after April 15 separately.”

“Since I’m a broadcast journalist, I have to make all the data simple for a listening/viewing audience. So here’s how I highlight the most important data on hospitalizations/testing/vaccines from the state’s website:”

“One other thing about Ohio,” Karen added, circling back to the issues of government leaning into anti-science radicals posing as experts or even journalists.

“While our governor was initially aggressive about shutdowns, he’s gotten pushback from his fellow Republicans in the legislature – some of whom are straight-up conspiracy theorists. They’re enabled by this guy (Jack Windsor). As the pandemic started, he ran a wedding venue. He suddenly decided he was an “investigative journalist” and infiltrated the governor’s daily press conferences – much to the frustration of actual journalists.”

Karen’s teammates who have been nominated include Andy Chow, Jo Ingles, and Dan Konik.

Karen Kasler (left), Jo Ingles (center) and Andy Chow (right) were all nominated as COVID-19 Data Heroes for their work with the Ohio Statehouse News Bureau.

A few words from those who nominated Karen and her team:

“Karen Kasler manages a team of truly talented individuals. I don’t know if she has a background in statistics or math, but she has managed to make sense of all these numbers for us. She doesn’t just throw the numbers at us like some people – she puts them in context so we understand what they mean for our lives. And she has mentored two people that could equally be considered for your award. But as the leader, you have to nominate Ms. Kasler!”

“Andy has done an exemplary job, along with colleagues Jo Ingles and Karen Kasler, providing data and analysis on the coronavirus crisis in Ohio, as well as how it affects listeners’ lives. His deep involvement with the issue has made him a trusted household name around the state.”

“Jo has continued thru her Twitter feed and on radio/television to post data and relevant news about the pandemic. I am most familiar with her Twitter postings geared toward understanding the raw data. “

Click here to visit Karen’s Twitter

Dr. Beth Linas

The Specialists Cohort (Washington, DC)

Dr. Beth Linas (Washington DC)

“Public health is a data driven field. However if there isn’t broad understanding of the data, what it means & what it means for you, public health efforts likely won’t succeed,” Dr. Linas said.

“I use Twitter to help translate and put context to scientific data/results as I believe science communication is critical to building trust and behavior change.”

From Dr. Linas’ website:

“I am an infectious disease epidemiologist whose research interests include improving the development, evidence base, and use of digital health technologies to understand social determinants of health and improve health outcomes. I am deeply passionate about the use of data to inform public health policy, and am an active science communicator working to help scientists communicate their science. You can follow me on twitter: @bethlinas”

“​I completed my post doctoral training and graduate degrees (Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD), Masters of Health Science (MHS)) in Infectious Disease Epidemiology at The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health . As an undergraduate at Brandeis University (BS, BA) I studied Science Policy and Biochemistry.”

​”Currently, I serve as an Epidemiologist and Lead Public Health Specialist with MITRE, working to implement health informatics and digital health products across the federal government. Previously, I was the Manager of Research and Science at the health technology company selected by the National Institutes of Health to lead the Participant Technology Systems Center for the ground breaking All of Us Research Program. From 2015-207, I served as a Science and Technology Policy fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), where I supported computer science and engineering researchers to improve health with the Smart and Connected Health Program at the National Science Foundation.”

​”While a AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow, I developed a passion for science communication and created, produced, and oversaw all production of the Sci on the Fly Podcast whose goal is the promotion of a public dialogue around science and science policy for the public by scientists.”

A few words from those who nominated Dr. Linas:

“Dr. Linas provides clear and easy to understand explanations of new papers, preprints, & regulations related to COVID19. Her passion for #SciComm comes through on her Twitter feed as does her advocacy for evidence based COVID policies. Her communications meets people where they are and help make COVID less scary and confusing.”

Click here to visit Dr. Linas’ Twitter page
Click here to visit Dr. Linas’ website

Dr. Vin Gupta

The Specialists Cohort (Washington)

Dr. Vin Gupta (Washington)

Dr. Gupta spends much of his day with his physician hat on, treating patients at the University of Washington Medical Center. He also wears the hats of faculty member at Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, Medical Analyst for NBC News, and member of various medical, research and policy councils.

That’s a lot of hats.

So making time to do the news, to combat misinformation, and lead data-driven reporting on COVID-19 is nothing short of a miracle.

“As a critical care pulmonologist and public health researcher at IHME, I’ve tried to emphasize the best scientific evidence to keep people and their loved one’s safe while leaning into storytelling as much as possible to make what I’m saying more accessible and understandable,” he said.

“Now more than ever, people need reliable public health information rooted in the best evidence to serve as guideposts during this crisis, and I feel privileged to help serve in this capacity.”

A few more hats, per U.S. News and World Report:

“A pulmonary and critical care medicine physician by training, Dr. Gupta has been caring for critically COVID-19 patients since the early days of the outbreak in Seattle. He helped a cross-sectoral team stand up the Seattle Coronavirus Assessment Network, the nation’s first effort to scale home-testing for COVID-19. His background in public health has focused on epidemic preparedness, with relevant roles at the US CDC’s Emerging Infections Program, the World Bank’s Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility, the China CDC, and the Pentagon’s Center for Global Health Engagement. Finally, Dr. Gupta is a deployable critical care physician for the US Air Force Medical Corps Reserves, medical contributor for MSNBC and NBC News, and term member of the Council on Foreign Relations.”

A few words from those who nominated Dr. Gupta:

“He is honest, factual, and easy to understand.”

Click here to visit Dr. Gupta’s website
Click here to follow Dr. Gupta on Twitter

Dr. Peter Hotez

The Speciliasts Group (Texas)

Dr. Peter Hotez (Texas)

If you’ve watched the news at all this past year, you’ve definitely seen him before.

Dr. Peter Hotez appears almost daily on CNN or MSNBC, explaining the science behind COVID-19 epidemiology and vaccinology to the public, while also communicating with fellow scientists to highlight cutting edge findings in the pandemic.

With his signature round-rimmed glasses, bowtie, and wide smile (with dimples and a mustache to boot), Dr. Hotez makes it a point to confront disinformation and those who spread it using the data and his warming demeaner to reach as many people as he can.

Apart from the usual guest appearances on television, Dr. Hotez stretches his time to fit in data-driven analysis, editorials, podcasts, and alternative-media interviews, ensuring the data and science reach a wide range of audiences.

Not only does Dr. Hotez fight dangerous misinformation on prime-time, but he also works on the research that helped develop the vaccines, and to address issues of vaccine hesitancy.

An article Dr. Hotez recently published in the journal Microbes and Infection documents the rise in anti-science extremism during the last five years, and addresses critical concerns over the forces who seek to dismember the public from medical experts and scientists.

For his efforts, like many of our nominees, Dr. Hotez has been harassed, threatened and suffered personally from the anti-science and anti-vaccine groups.

Dr. Bob Watcher, another one of our nominees who is currently hosting Andy Slavitt’s “In the Bubble” science podcast while he serves on the COVID-19 White House Task Force, recently commended Dr. Hotez for his bravery:

Dr. Hotez is a vaccine scientist at Baylor College of Medicine who co-leads a team of scientists developing a new COVID-19 vaccine suitable for global health and now being scaled for production in India.

And when the flocks of alt-right and science-impaired do attack, Dr. Hotez is ready with a witty reply to puts the focus back where it belongs.

A few public comments of support for Dr. Peter Hotez:

“Always appreciate Dr. Hotez’ talent to communicate big info w/o resorting to drama or fear. We need to be well-informed to choose accordingly, not so freaked out that we just hide!”

“I’m blessed to live in the same city as Dr. Peter Hotez. I’ve been following his research since before COVID and am glad he’s at the forefront keeping us informed.”

Click here to follow Peter on Twitter
Click here to visit Peter’s website

Mary Landers

The Press Cohort (Georgia)

We are working to complete our profiles for the more than 500 nominees submitted during the month of February. If you’d like to add to this profile, please email us at: Contact@Data-Usa.org

Mary Landers (Georgia)

Mary Landers tackled some of the toughest issues to cover as a journalist during COVID-19 – issues of inequality that led to and exacerbated how minority communities were impacted, inequity in vaccine distribution, and racial and ethnic experiences and vulnerabilities.

“The pandemic has been data-driven news from the beginning,” Mary said. “Which states have cases, how many, what percent of the population is that, how many people have died. I’ve tried to make sense of this data at a local level when I can for our Savannah Morning News readers so that they can take appropriate actions to protect themselves. Data drives how we cover the pandemic.”

“For example, when we reached 200 COVID deaths in our county I described the demographics of those who died and profiled ten of those people,” Mary said. “Data also drives what we cover. I’ve kept an eye on issues like the settings hardest hit by COVID — prisons and nursing homes — and written local stories about outbreaks in these places.”

One of the most challenging issues Mary covered during COVID-19 related to vaccine hesitancy among Black communities in Savannah, and the dark history behind those attitudes.

A few words from those who nominated Mary:

“I believe Mary Landers is a data hero due to her diligent work towards providing the community with accurate COVID numbers. And she doesn’t stop there, she has also provided data on how Covid has disproportionately impacted black people and POC in the Savannah area. She also created data to see which zip codes were receiving the most Covid vaccines and how economically wealthier areas were receiving more shipments.”

“For the last year she has dedicated her life to providing people with Covid numbers, information, data and even helped sign people up for the vaccine herself.”

Click here to follow Mary on Twitter