SELangkah Steps Forward In A Quantum Leap — Dr Musa Mohd Nordin

Any digital platform should evolve and be agile and inclusive, if it is to utilise data efficiently in navigating this pandemic.

This is a digital novice’s reflection on the SELangkah app which has been his chosen digital app since its inception. 

It dates back to when Singapore first rolled out its new mobile app called TraceTogether on 20 March 2020 to help Singapore’s efforts in curbing COVID-19. Minister-in-charge of GovTech, Janil Puthucheary said, “It means that poor memory will no longer slow down the process of contact tracing,” 

A friend from Singapore drew my attention to this mobile app and I immediately spoke to Dr Helmi Zakaraih about a similar app initiative for Malaysia, and the rest, as they say, is history. 

This now infamous creator of SELangkah (“Stepping Safely” in the local language) rapidly developed and deployed this all-in-one digital platform connecting 6.4 million residents of Selangor to their health care provider, the business community, and their elected state government. It was officially launched by the Chief Minister of Selangor on May 5, 2020.

Dr Helmi has pitched SELangkah at Harvard University, the United Nations and the World Health Organisation (WHO). He has three international scientific pre-prints on SELangkah to his credit and if Malaysia had only listened to him in May 2020, we would now be powered by a world-class digital app, which makes optimum use of data science, AI and machine learning.

Dr Helmi is a member of the Selangor Task Force on Covid-19 (STFC). When the first locally transmitted case of Covid-19 was recorded in Malaysia on March 12, 2020, together with the impending lockdown, the Selangor State Government through the STFC was cognisant of the challenges ahead to deliver its public services, safeguarding the people’s welfare, while maintaining public health measures. The key question was how to operate everything safely and to stay connected with the people despite the Movement Control Order (MCO).

The following are some of the features of SELangkah which fulfilled its requirements within the context of the public health tools of Find-Test-Trace-Isolate-Support (FTTIS).

1. Contact Tracing: Similar Data Collection Method, But Different Analytical and Automation Approaches

SELangkah was initially deployed as the nation’s first QR-based visitor logs tool for contact tracing purposes, on May 5, 2020. The MySejahtera QR tool (called MySejahtera Check in) was rolled out on June 2, 2020. 

Both collect the same information – a visitor’s log-in details at any particular time. The level of analytic sophistication and the ease of use for health care workers sets them apart from other apps.

The SELangkah contact tracing automation means that the records of visitor logs need not be “corroborated” manually as is the case with MySejahtera. Only by using the patient’s phone number, SELangkah algorithm can sift through millions of records to create a list of “probable close contact”, ranked by importance.

This ranking is important, so it does not burden health inspectors to test individuals who are not likely to be infected. Beyond simply listing hundreds of phone numbers (which obviously will be disregarded), SELangkah built a proprietary dwell-time algorithm to create a prioritisation (purple dots in the figure). This automation saves hundreds of work hours and allows contact tracing to be done effectively.

2. Enough Of The Technicalities, More Importantly, Does SELangkah Work?

At the peak of its rollout between May and August 2020 (i.e. when the SELangkah poster ahd widespread publicity in Selangor), STFC utilised the data intensively. Up to 45 per cent of all cases happening in Selangor was traceable through SELangkah. That’s pretty good – it means they can catch sporadic cases before it became a big cluster.

3. Thorough, Timely Contact Tracing Is Key To Keeping Case Numbers Low

This is absolutely critical to ensure that the cases are kept low as humanly and digitally possible.

When SELangkah was actively used in Selangor (between the third week of May to the middle of August 2020), STFC managed to keep the positive cases low. It means whenever cases emerge, they can quickly apply the FTTIS tool.

However, the success story of the SELangkah Contact Tracing was cut short on August 18, and subsequently, September 2, when two major national policy changes took place:

  1. MySejahtera was made obligatory, thus creating anxiety among shopkeepers after rumours and reports of businesses being fined if they continued to display SELangkah QR codes alongside the new MySejahtera codes. This effectively stopped the usage of SELangkah.
  2. The patient location data that the MOH previously shared with the Selangor state government was stopped. The Chairman of STFC was quoted as saying, “You (MOH) ask us to box in the ring but you blindfolded us.” 

With the stoppage of both type of data — visitor logs and patient location data — it meant Selangor has effectively lost its contact tracing ecosystem. And from Sept 2020 onwards, the de facto contact tracing ecosystem in Selangor is MySejahtera.

4. Cases Are Increasing In Selangor Now Because of Contact Tracing Failure

Cases are increasing in Selangor because MySejahtera contact tracing has miserably failed.

The Ministry of Health (MOH) and the National Security Council is now paying dearly for disabling the SELangkah Contact Tracing ecosystem. 

5. Absolute Daily Case Count By Geographical Boundaries Does Not Paint A True Picture Of The Pandemic

The better way of illustrating the spread of Covid-19 is through the use of incidence (active cases) and prevalence (cumulative cases) rates. 

Active cases per 1,000 population tells us the incidence rate of Covid-19, that is, the likelihood of you getting Covid-19. 

Cumulative cases per 1,000 population tells us the prevalence rate, that is, the number of persons in any state having Covid-19 at any one point in time.

Then you can compare apples with apples. This is Epidemiology 101. 

6. SELangkah has Been Repurposed To Address Other Pandemic Challenges

True to its name, SELangkah is dynamic, stepping forward and evolving to address the needs of the people as we navigate this pandemic together. Over time, SELangkah has focused on other essential public services, which include subsidised Covid-19 mass community testing, a touchless payment system for micro businesses, state welfare distribution, home monitoring tools, vaccine slot pre-registration, etc. 

The SELangkah multimodal platform, with open integration and people-centred design philosophy, allows it to serve a wider segment of the population. This ranged from the B40s seeking for subsidised screening tests that will allow them to cari makan, to general practitioner clinics struggling to undertake data entry.

Any digital platform should evolve and be agile and inclusive, if it is to utilise data efficiently in navigating this pandemic. Otherwise, they would be looking at heaps of data stored in a data lake, accessible, but never repurposed to serve its function of identifying gaps and suggesting the appropriate response and strategy.

The callous judgment call on that fateful day in September 2020 will forever remain a black mark in the history of Covid-19 data science. It has contributed to the current third pandemic wave.

As mere humans, pride and ego can get the better of us. But only by recognising and taming our pride, can we emerge the best, as a nation. At the end of the day, we are in it together.

If we refuse to learn from each other, share our experiences and information and operationalise the best practices of public health, we are in for a terribly chronic and rough ride with a vicious cycle of MCOs.

  • This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of CodeBlue.

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