Middlebury College student’s COVID work draws national attention
I’ve always been interested in data, and I’ve really tried to embrace it during the pandemic, which has shown the need for fast, accurate reporting. The numbers speak for themselves.
— Benjy Renton
MIDDLEBURY — On Friday morning, Oct. 2, just hours after learning that President Trump had tested positive for COVID-19, Middlebury College senior Benjy Renton sat down and started drawing on a piece of paper.
“It was a lot of squares, lots of ‘Who tested positive’ versus ‘Who tested negative,’ to see how it spread,” Renton told the Independent.
An emerging data journalist who currently works as Digital Director of the Middlebury Campus newspaper, Renton has been reporting on the pandemic since January, when he found himself temporarily stranded in Beijing during the initial outbreak.
He’s also a trained contact tracer.
As he worked out his ideas and started giving them shape, Renton was introduced via Twitter to Jesse O’Shea, a fellow in infectious disease and internal medicine physician at Emory University in Atlanta. Together, using publicly available information — including event photographs, news reports and flight manifests — the two began listing people who had had possible contact with the president.
What started off as a spreadsheet with a couple dozen names on it grew, by the end of the day, into a full-on dashboard with more than 70 contacts, nearly 20 of whom had tested positive.
By the following morning Renton and O’Shea had determined that 15 people in the White House had tested positive for the disease.
People began referring to the White House as a COVID-19 “superspreader.”
Also on that Saturday, Renton and O’Shea joined forces with Peter Walker, the Data Visualization Co-Lead at the Atlantic magazine’s COVID Tracking Project.
Among other things, Walker added to their dashboard a map with contacts at various places the president had traveled during the previous week.
The dashboard was getting hundreds of thousands of views online, in part because the Trump administration did not itself appear to be conducting any contact tracing on its own.
“It was shocking how fast it spread,” Renton said. “Contact tracing usually involves family trees. This family tree is essentially the three branches of our government.”
As of this past Wednesday morning, the tracker, which can be found at whcovidtrack.com, lists 385 contacts, 10% of whom have tested positive, including 16 members of the Trump administration, five members of Congress, four military officials and three members of the White House press corps.
The tracker has been viewed nearly 800,000 times.
“Our goal is to provide transparency, and, by doing so, possibly save lives,” the trio wrote on the tracker’s About page.
“People need to understand that this is real,” Renton told the Independent. “It’s still out there.”
The White House COVID Tracker is only the latest of a series of pandemic projects Renton has created or worked on.
“I don’t know if I’ve followed the pandemic or if the pandemic has followed me,” he said with a laugh.
After Middlebury College abruptly suspended in-person learning last March, Renton created a spreadsheet to help keep track of American colleges that were following suit.
Throughout the spring he organized a series of online discussions for student journalists across the country, so they could brainstorm ways to maintain their operations and provide pandemic coverage.
Since April he has published a weekly newsletter, “Where We Stand with COVID-19,” providing national updates on the pandemic and how it’s affecting colleges and universities.
In August he co-authored a scientific paper with researchers from CalTech and Johns Hopkins University, which compares college and university COVID-19 testing plans.
During a recent interview with the Middlebury Campus, Peter Walker said Renton’s work is on par with anything he’s seen in the academic or scientific world.
That work has been garnering attention from the national media, too, including the Washington Post, The New York Times and Democracy Now!.
“I’ve always been interested in data, and I’ve really tried to embrace it during the pandemic, which has shown the need for fast, accurate reporting,” Renton said. “The numbers speak for themselves.”
He built the White House and other trackers with the free version of Tableau, a powerful data visualization tool. But it involves much more than just feeding numbers into a spreadsheet, then feeding a spreadsheet into Tableau.
“Before working with data you kind of need a vision for what you want to present,” Renton said.
In addition to majoring in East Asian Studies, the Middlebury senior is minoring in geography, which has helped shape his approach these last several months.
“Geography is an interesting lens to look at things through,” Renton said. “It’s important to consider issues of scale. An increase in numbers in one context (or location) may not be present everywhere.”
After graduation he plans to pursue data journalism, he said.
And plenty of people are rooting for him.
“Middlebury senior @bhrenton is a must-follow for information on #COVID-19 and colleges/universities,” wrote George Henson, an assistant professor at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies, in a July Twitter post. “Middlebury should be proud of him and the @nytimes and the @washingtonpost should be courting him.”
Earlier this month, Vermont Sen. Ruth Hardy sang Renton’s praises, also on Twitter.
“I 1st met @bhrenton 2 years (ago) at the Shoreham Apple Fest while campaigning for Senate,” Hardy wrote. “Now I rely on him for breaking news re #COVID19 & beyond… He is indeed a powerhouse & super sweet too. Go Benjy! Also, get some sleep!”
Reach Christopher Ross at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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