When the coronavirus first hit Hawaii, experts predicted a sharp downturn in the economy followed by a steady recovery beginning sometime in November and continuing through 2021.

Six months and two stay-at-home orders later, the economy is still at a standstill and the virus is still spreading through the community.

The unpredictability of the virus and the government failures in managing the pandemic are just some of the variables that economists and data scientists have wrestled with while trying to use numbers and complex models to make sense of the world.

Carl Bonham and Peter Fuleky of the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization and Kendrick Leong, a research specialist at the Hawaii Data Collaborative, joined Civil Beat data reporter Yoohyun Jung Thursday in looking at the imperfect science of forecasting and how data should drive public decision making.

The online panel discussion was part of Civil Beat’s ongoing series, “Hawaii’s Changing Economy,” that has been exploring where the economy is headed and whether it can survive beyond tourism. Another discussion is scheduled for next week.

Civil Beat hosted a panel Thursday with economists on how data is used to make predictions and guide policies. Screenshot/2020

The panelists said that Honolulu is on the right track with its new tiered system to guide opening of businesses and activities. Moving between tiers requires city officials to look at the average number of case counts over a 7-day period.

Such a system provides some stability and allows businesses to predict what may come next, Leong said. Other business leaders have noted that mercurial government mandates have so far cost businesses money on lost products.

But government decisions in the past six months — like Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s nighttime travel restrictions, limits on outdoor activities and crackdown on small social gatherings — did not always appear to be guided by data. And what information the state and counties did have did not always make it to the public.

“Keep the data coming transparently, quickly. Keep data coming to the public,” Bonham said.

Data on the pandemic and economic fallout has guided some good decisions, Bonham noted, such as how to distribute federal relief funds to hard-hit residents. He also expects the Legislature to rely heavily on data gathered this year to inform what policies lawmakers propose when they reconvene in January.

Bonham emphasized that it’s important to get this current shutdown right, and control the virus, if the economy is to recover.

“We are getting closer to being able to control our own destiny,” he said. “If we keep the virus under control — on Oahu, that’s all we can control, we can’t control anywhere else in the world — then we have a shot at getting the economy restarted.”

The economy almost did restart in May. Fuleky’s figures showed the economy recovering by about 33% up until late July, when cases spiked to over 300 a day. Since then, the economy has retreated to where it was around March, during the first shutdown.

Under Fuleky’s model, the economy will be considered recovered when spending and other indicators reach levels similar to early March.

Bonham said that, prior to each government-mandated shutdown, economic activity already showed signs of slowing as people chose to stay home more.

Data collection is not always perfect. Leong said that some companies that provide sales data may not track neighbor islands. And over-reliance on just one factor, like mobility data to see how the population moves about, may not show the whole picture of what’s happening in the state.

That data needs to be paired with other factors, like sales or jobs numbers, to get the full picture.

But what that picture might look like six months from now is still unclear.

“When we deal with red all over the screen, we can only hope it gets better,”  Leong said.

Hawaii’s Changing Economy” series is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation as part of its CHANGE Framework project.

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