In 2004, before he reached the age of 20, Andrey Alimetov created what has become one of the most viewed websites of the coronavirus pandemic, Worldometer. The site has shot into the top 100 Alexa rankings. Coronavirus data collated by Worldometer has gone on to be cited by the Government, politicians, media outlets, and commentators – Peter Hitchens has taken to tweeting out a “Daily Worldometer check” comparing the UK and Sweden’s statistics. Wikipedia editors have debated whether or not it should be used as a source. Conspiracy theorists and a right-wing American think tank have speculated that a Chinese company is behind Worldometer. So, can the site be trusted, and who’s behind it?
The site then blew up after being featured on Digg (“Yes, I’m that old”, Alimetov says). So a few months later, he sold it on eBay through an auction for $2000. “At the time, it was a lot of money, and I wasn’t even 20 back then so it was a no-brainer. The immediate cash-out was worth a lot more in my opinion at the time than long-term returns. Also at the time there was no easy way to ‘cash out’ a high-traffic website. The money at the time really helped with my living situation.”
But the purchaser didn’t seem to have big plans for the site at the start either. In 2013, after seeing the site on the front page of Reddit, Alimetov wrote to Worldometer to send his best regards. The owner, Dario, replied, explaining he had bought the website mainly “for its PR6” or PageRank 6, a discontinued algorithmic system used by Google for ranking the popularity of a site and the popularity of sites linked from other pages. He wanted to link to other sites from it to boost their traffic. Then, as this side of his business started to decline, “I decided to invest in Worldometer, bringing in resources and people until eventually it took a course of its own.”
In 2005, the site began to offer manually updated numbers, showing American military casualties in Iraq since the day the war began, since “Mission Accomplished”, since the “Capture of Saddam” and since the handover of Saddam. From 2007, it was led by “Chief project coordinator” Sir Thomasson, and by 2009 it was part of the “Real Time Statistics Project”. The Real Time Statistics Project, however, seemed to consist of Worldometer and spin-off sites created by its unknown team of “developers, researchers and volunteers.” Worldometer counters have apparently been “licensed and showed on electronic displays and motorway signs in Colombia and England.”
Today, references to either Thomasson or sometime managing director Peter Collins are no longer on Worldometer’s site, which notes it is owned by Dadax. Conspiracy theorists were quick to jump on the fact that at least two companies go by the name Dadax, one of which is based in Shanghai, bombarding the Chinese company with queries about the data. But it wasn’t behind Worldometer, which is owned by American-based Dadax LLC. Company filings reveal its sometime president to be a Dario Pasqualino. Multiple unsuccessful attempts were made to try and contact Worldometer and speak to any of the figures involved for comment.
The curiosity about the possible Chinese ownership of Worldometer is not just a consequence of suspicion as to the veracity of Chinese coronavirus data, but also of problems with Worldometer’s process of data collation. There were perhaps inevitable incidents of hacking in March which suggested the Vatican City had had 892,045 deaths. A remarkable figure, let alone that those deaths were from 568,000 cases in a country with a population of around 800. But the site has other problems apart from hackers.
Max Roser, a researcher at Oxford University and founder of Our World In Data, has expressed frustration at the site. He tweeted: “I’m annoyed by Worldometer because it wastes so much of my and my team’s time. For weeks we get messages of people asking why do we not show this or that – ‘Worldometer has the data’. And too often when you look into it, they provide no source or it is wrong.” He says the site has made mistakes in reporting test numbers, in its labelling of metrics, and confusion of case fatality rate with infection fatality rate.
Unlike Wikipedia, Worldometer’s team are totally anonymous. There’s no edit history, talk page, or audit log, apart from bullet pointed country-by-country daily updates, some of which are provided with a link to the original source while others aren’t. The missing sources and occasional mismatch between the data in the source and the update were enough for Wikipedia editors to decide not to permit any use of Worldometer as a source in any coronavirus related pages.
Despite Worldometer not being a good enough source for Wikipedia editors, it was for the UK government. From 30 March to 14 April, Worldometer figures were cited in the slide showing global comparison of deaths at the daily press conference. But perhaps because Worldometer didn’t explicitly note the difference in forms of reporting processes between countries and was bundling the death figure together even if it excluded care home deaths at the time, as Health Service Journal pointed out on 14 April, the comparison was flawed. The next day, the source was changed to Johns Hopkins University (JHU). When asked if Worldometer’s data had been verified and why it was used in the first place, a Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “Both Worldometers and John Hopkins provided comprehensive and well respected data. As the situation developed, we transferred from Worldometers to John Hopkins as John Hopkins relies more on official sources – in the USA, for example, John Hopkins collates state-level information.”
Inevitably, the data from JHU is not without its critics either. One thread on the GitHub project where JHU is publishing its data calls for them to “please stop misinforming people by feeding fake data” and to let “trustworthy providers like [Worldometer] do the job.” Despite its flaws, Worldometer continues to attract significant traffic, both towards its coronavirus coverage and apparent real time updates on world statistics. In 2010, a Toronto librarian wrote in a review of the site: “The first time I visited Worldometers I had the feeling that I was suddenly put into orbit and looking down on the collective activity of all earth’s human inhabitants”. Worldometer’s clean crisp presentation of the data makes coronavirus and the scale of human (in)activity seem comprehensible, nothing more than a set of increasing numbers.
As for Alimetov, he now works as a systems manager for a company that publishes trade magazines for healthcare professionals and scientists. He admits he “probably would have never taken it to where it is now.” Does selling it now seem a bit like the case of Laszlo Hanyecz, who spent 10,000 Bitcoin for two pizzas in 2010? “Yeah that’s exactly how it looks like, but I don’t regret it at all, actually kinda proud my idea started something as grand as this.”
[See also: The UK is the only G7 economy not to have recovered from the Covid crash]