IT has become the go-to website for anyone seeking to understand how the Covid pandemic is unfolding in Scotland.

But the man number-crunching the data to create the graphics, tables and charts that thousands of 'Travelling Tabby' fans have come to rely on insists he knows "almost nothing" about statistics or biology.

John Frace, the 25-year-old business management student behind the blog says he has been "blown away" by its popularity.

"I thought the general Scottish public would be interested in it, as I’ve not really seen any other websites which give Scotland specific data - most focus on the UK as a whole.

"But I really wasn’t expecting people to react in the way which they have.

"I must have had thousands of thank you messages by now, and have also received countless messages from people saying how the page has helped to ease their anxiety, or helped them to make informed decisions for their family, which makes me so happy to hear.

"Additionally, lots of healthcare professionals have been in touch to say how they appreciate the site and check it daily. It’s nice to think that I’ve been able to help them out in some small way during this awful year.

"There’s even been a few statisticians, including staff from the Office for National Statistics, National Records of Scotland and Public Health Scotland, who have sent me praise for it, which means a lot.

"Recently Professor Devi Sridhar sent me a message about how she likes the page, which was a proud moment.

"I've actually had a couple of people approach me with job offers, and even some teachers ask if I could be a guest speaker in their class (including at one of the top universities in the country). I keep thinking they’ve got the wrong person - as if I’ve got any sort of qualifications to be doing that.

"I’m pretty good at digital design and putting information across clearly, but I know almost nothing when it comes to programming, statistics, or biology."

Ironically, it was his sister who graduated from Edinburgh University with a degree in infectious diseases. 

"Whenever someone sends me a question about the virus and how it works, I’m tempted to just forward it on to her," says Mr Frace.

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The Travelling Tabby blog began life as a hobby project inspired after Mr Frace, from Dunoon in Argyll, "fell in love" with travelling following a solo trip across the US and China in 2018.

When he returned to Scotland he decided to set up a travel blog to write in his spare time while studying for a degree in digital design and web development - later switching to business management - at Argyll College, part of the University of the Highlands and Islands.

HeraldScotland: John on holiday in the US - the trip inspired his decision to set up the travel blog which became Travelling TabbyJohn on holiday in the US - the trip inspired his decision to set up the travel blog which became Travelling Tabby

He choose the name 'Travelling Tabby' to reflect his love of cats as well as feline qualities of "curiosity, caution, and independence" essential to any solo traveller.

Mr Frace spent last year gradually designing and building his website until it was ready to launch - just as the Covid-19 pandemic started to sweep the globe.

Instead he turned his attention to running a daily coronavirus tracker and admits it has "taken up most of my free time ever since".

"I think it was a few days after our first case when the Scottish government started releasing the data by health board, and I decided to start tracking that in my own spreadsheet," says John.

"I just wanted to see where the new cases were occurring specifically, and track any trends which were going on.

"Then I started collecting the rest of the data in the spreadsheet too, such as the number of tests and deaths.

"I’d compile all of the information each day, then produce an easy to view visual summary of all the increases for the day. I started sharing an image of that summary online, and people seemed to find it useful.

"Someone asked me if I could host the image online somewhere, and that gave me the idea to create a little webpage for it.

"Since then, the webpage has just grown to what it is now."

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Mr Frace now spends around four to five hours every day updating the site as new data is released for Scotland and the rest of the UK, as well as carrying out maintenance, upgrades, adding analysis, and replying to dozens of emails from Travelling Tabby followers.

"Before March of this year, I’d had about 800 views on the website. And since March, I’ve had over two million views.

"The same thing happened on Twitter. Before I launched the tracker, I had about 10 followers. And now I’ve got close to 12,000.

"At 3pm, when the daily update goes live, I’ll have 700 people on the page at once. And lately I’m getting around 40-50,000 people visiting each day. I thought people would have lost interest by now, but the views actually seem to be increasing each week."

Although he volunteers at his local Oxfam shop once a week, John is otherwise a full-time student and has been particularly touched by the generosity of his fans.

The website has an option to 'buy Travelling Tabby a coffee' - in other words, make a donation - to keep it going.

"I actually upgraded the servers a week ago to help cope with the increase in demand, and worked out that it will cost me about £300 over the next six months.

"So I put together a little target pot of £300 on my donations page, just in case anyone wanted to chip in and help with the costs.

"Once I shared it on Twitter, it somehow reached that £300 goal within 30 minutes. The donations kept coming in over Saturday and Sunday, and I ended the weekend with about £1500 in the pot.

"That’s obviously far more than I’d normally receive over a weekend, but people have been very supportive since the start.

"As a student it’s really been helpful, especially as the page takes up too much time for me do any other work."

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He admits it is becoming even more of a struggle now that the university term has resumed, but is determined to continue making time for the site.

"I’m a bit tired of it now, to be honest, but I feel like it’s a public service at this point, and I can’t really just stop.

"I was hoping that things would be coming to an end by this point in the year, but unfortunately it now seems like we’re on the midst of a second wave, and I’m busier than ever.

"But this won’t last forever. Eventually the numbers will get so low that the government (and myself in turn) will switch to weekly updates, and then monthly updates.

"Until that time comes, I’ll just keep at it, as I think it’s very important for people to be able to clearly understand what is going on at both a national and local level."