Go farther, go together

Go farther, go together

Duration: 9 minutes, 45 seconds.
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Physical distance. Quarantine. Contact tracing. Essential businesses. Community spread. State of emergency. COVID-19. As the world continues to navigate through this pandemic, we are constantly familiarizing ourselves with a range of words and terms. And that list continues to grow.

Before the pandemic, many of us probably didn’t know the difference between an N95 respirator, a surgical mask, or a cloth mask. The term personal protective equipment, also known as PPE, was not something we regularly talked about.

Fast forward to today: we now own at least one cloth mask and take it with us everywhere we go. So, it’s no doubt that they have played―and continue to play―an important role in our pursuit to slow the spread of COVID-19 and in protecting ourselves and our community.

A hot commodity

Holly Campbell
Holly Campbell

In the early days of the pandemic, PPE was in very high demand and countries around the world were all trying to get their hands on some. The Government of Canada’s (GC) response to COVID-19 included very large procurement decisions. Whether it was ordering millions of N95 respirators or gloves, these were big orders from a financial perspective, but also from a logistics perspective. “When orders of PPE would come in, there needed to be space in warehouses to store them. There needed to be people available to verify their quality before identifying them as acceptable to be sent to provinces and territories. If we didn’t have accurate information on how much PPE we already had, we would struggle to know how much we should order―if any at all,” explains Holly Campbell, member of the COVID Task Force at Health Canada (HC).

Christina Tucker
Christina Tucker

“Given the number of departments involved in the chain of custody of PPE, it was really important to have a ‘single source of truth’ to ensure all departments were on the same page,” Holly explains. “Work was evolving very rapidly―the progression of COVID-19, the availability of PPE and its supply globally―we knew that we needed to act quickly.” Christina Tucker, member of the COVID Task Force at HC, tells us “the task force was mandated to support in any way we could, we were looking at what was getting deployed and getting that crucial information into the hands of senior management.”

The power of data

“In the earliest days, when asked the question ‘how much PPE do we have?”, some departments were reporting on PPE inventory based on how much was in Canadian custody―this could include PPE in warehouses in other countries, but would not necessarily be in Canada yet. At the same time, other departments might’ve answered the same question based on how much PPE had already arrived in Canada and had passed quality testing and was ready to deploy to provinces and territories,” Christina explains. The way PPE inventory was defined varied and because of that, “you can imagine how at any given time, the numbers would be different,” explains Holly. It was evident the silos of PPE information would make it hard to answer the question “do we have enough?”.

“We were able to work with our partners to resolve data issues, so we could better understand how much PPE we had globally, how much was coming in and provide advice on how much more PPE we needed to bring in.”

Assembling partners from across the GC―from Statistics Canada (StatsCan) to Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) to the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) to Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED)―HC was able to establish a powerful team of data-focused public servants. “We were able to work with our partners to resolve data issues, so we could better understand how much PPE we had globally, how much was coming in and provide advice on how much more PPE we needed to bring in,” Holly explains.

“There was a daily need for accurate briefings at the highest levels of departments and with the Privy Council Office and the Office of the Prime Minister. The pace of those meetings and the decisions that needed to be made―the financial implications and the investment in the type of procurement―required a rapid synthesis of data and a quick understanding of the context as it evolved from moment to moment,” Holly explains. As a result, HC collaborated with StatsCan to spearhead the creation of a suite of data visualisation tools in a Protected B cloud to assist over 300 federal and provincial / territorial users with self-service. Whether it was self-service for data analysts, or deputies―people needed to know where to go to find answers regarding PPEs and be able to do it themselves. “Let’s say a media call was happening and the person responding to the call needed to know the exact number of N95 respirators that were sent to the country, they needed to be able to access that information in such a fast way, that there wasn’t enough time to email our team and ask us for the answer,” Christina explains. Data visualisation, as its name states, is about presenting data in a visual and well-designed way, to allow the reader to digest the information easily. Holly and Christina believe that this ‘self-serve’ data method can also impact the future of work within the GC. “We’ve proven the value of these tools and this way of working. Our team has contributed and supported efforts in other areas of the GC―we’ve helped other departments, whether it’s PPE forecasting or the vaccine roll-out effort,” Christina tells us.

“It’s not enough to tell the public ‘just trust us, we made this decision off the best advice’, the onus is on us to prove the process we took in a rapid context, and visualisation is a good way to resolve that.”

Not only is it important to present data in a way that is simple to understand but it is also just as important―if not more important―to present accurate data. “When you provide data to senior decision makers, you provide the confidence that any decision they’re going to be making is based on evidence and data. That is what Canadians expect,” Holly explains. While opinions may differ from one person to the next, there is really no way to dispute evidence supported by data in this case.  “It’s not enough to tell the public ‘just trust us, we made this decision off the best advice’, the onus is on us to prove the process we took in a rapid context, and visualisation is a good way to resolve that,” Holly tells us. 

The journey within

“We have been working at a radical pace. The people on this team have come in with a very strong commitment to the mission and it’s been an all-hands-on-deck type of approach,” Holly explains. From our conversation, I can tell they have a lot on their plates, but their relentless energy is contagious. Holly attributes a lot of that to their Director, Gillian Dawson. “She has a strong vision with respect to workplace culture and ensuring that, despite grueling circumstances, we make space for our mental wellness. She has been a great support in our work,” Holly explains. In times like these that are incredibly tough on people’s mental health, it makes such a difference to have a leader that places such a value on it and supports employees to take care of the physical and emotional well-being needs. It’s no wonder the COVID Task Force PPE Data Products and Strategy team are doing such meaningful work. As we wrapped up our conversation, I asked them what their favourite part of their work was and Holly responded, “we just worked together seamlessly as a team. It wasn’t about hierarchy; it was about your willingness to do the work.” This reminds me of that famous quote: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together” and boy, did the team ever go far.

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