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Using data to meet people’s information needs during the pandemic

Information overload

As someone who closely followed news streams before the pandemic began, I was amazed at how fast COVID news traveled. It’s been hard to keep up with ever-changing pandemic information, like case numbers, regulations and advisories. Sometimes it’s just as hard to figure out which ones are accurate. Navigating all this information is a big task for people who are already stressed.

To help manage the information overload, many people turn to social media for curated news. The thing is, social media platforms use algorithms to show you content based on what you’ve interacted with in the past. In a global crisis, these algorithms might hide the information you need to make good decisions. Worse yet, the algorithms might prioritize inaccurate or outdated information in your news feed.

Health Canada, Service Canada, the Canadian Digital Service (CDS) and Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS) wanted to help. So last year we built the “Get updates on COVID-19” email notification service using CDS’s “GC Notify” tool. This service sends people trusted and timely email updates about the pandemic in an accessible way.

You can learn more about the backstory of the tool in this blog post.

Using data to put people first

Since our team wants to help solve the information overload problem with our email updates (and not add to it), we need to make sure we’re picking topics that matter most to people. To do that, we turn to data.

Web analytics

Our team uses website analytics to identify COVID-related web pages that attract lots of viewers. This tells us what people care about. We’ll then check if there are any updates to guidelines on vaccines, public health measures, and mental health in relation to those topics.


We turn to the Government of Canada’s toll free COVID-19 information line for the top questions and themes people are calling in about. We also look at user feedback on Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) pages. Both sources help us see if there are information gaps that people are asking about. Our view is, if one person is looking for something, there are probably many more looking for the same thing.

News stories

News media monitoring also helps us stay relevant in people’s inboxes. News publications often run multiple stories on the same topic, building its newsworthiness like stalagmite in a cave. Stories that grow in newsworthiness are a good indication of important topics for people.

Social media

Finally, we track social media from Health Canada and PHAC. Social media helps us see what is already being promoted so we can better understand how our notifications will fit into the information already shared by these health authorities.

Context is key

While data in isolation can help us make informed decisions, it doesn’t always give us the full picture of people’s needs. Understanding human needs also requires some critical thinking and context for that data. I learned this around New Year’s of 2021.

Earlier this year, web analytics showed increased traffic on travel-related web pages as people were returning home from holidays. At the same time, web content on vaccine rollout was picking up speed as vaccines were starting to be approved for use.

Because of those two big events, we thought starting with a notification on holiday travel would be a hit. That travel message actually lost us 315 subscribers. As we learned, there had to be more to this picture than web analytics was showing us.

After some critical thinking, we realized that even though there was a lot of attention on travel and vaccines, the average Canadian was already well-informed about them. The need for more information on these topics didn’t exist. Which meant travel advice didn’t produce a high click-through rate.

After some more digging, we realized what wasn’t as readily available was mental health help. At the time, Canadians were dealing with the mental health outcomes of spending the holiday season isolated from their families.

So, we decided to send out a message the following week on anxiety and isolation during COVID-19. This message helped us to make up the 315 lost subscribers – and many more.

This was a helpful opportunity to reflect on the role our service plays in the lives of people and a larger information ecosystem. We learned to be more mindful of people’s needs and contexts. It helps us send more relevant messages to keep people safe.

Impact so far

We’re happy to see that the notification service has an average click-through rate of 7% (which is above the government average of 4%). This tells us that putting people first works.

It’s important for us to continue turning to data and context, especially as we try to return to normalcy. Since we don’t know what the future of the pandemic will bring, the best we can do is be prepared to share information responsibly.

If you’d like to learn more, feel free to email us.

If you’d like to use the tool, you can sign up to get updates on COVID-19.