CovidNow: Making Sense Of The Pandemic

By committing to open data, the Ministry of Health is really submitting into a contract with the public to feed data quality in a timely manner every single day — and to achieve that is not a small feat at all, says Lim Sheng Han, one of the CovidNow website developers.

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 6 — The CovidNow website shares a common beginning with many Malaysians who tried to make sense of the Covid-19 pandemic using publicly available data.

The scale of the pandemic, however, shows that the problem is not for any single person or entity to fully comprehend — not a data analyst, not a scientist, and certainly, not the Ministry of Health (MOH), within their respective individual capacities. 

But in a “whole-of-society” approach that combines the data analyst, the scientist, and the MOH, there is a greater chance of seeing the pandemic for what it truly is, and that is what the CovidNow team set out to do when they started their journey: to make sense of the crisis.

MOH’s initial infographics did well in presenting the country’s first Covid-19 outbreak. But as cases grew, the virus became more infectious, more lives were lost, and livelihoods destroyed, it became clear that a new and more comprehensive way of portraying the epidemic was needed.

Hence, many individual Malaysians took it upon themselves to collate their own data sets and formed the likes of MY Vax Tracker and Malaysia Vaccine Tracker (@MYVaccineCount). 

It was these individual efforts that made MOH realise that their vast data sets could be better utilised and presented.

That was when Dr Mahesh Appannan, head of data at MOH’s Crisis Preparedness and Response Centre (CPRC), and his team at the ministry, decided to put the “whole-of-society” approach into practice and approached the creators of the MY Vax Tracker, Malaysia Vaccine Tracker, as well as a designer and back-end developer to come up with CovidNow.

The CovidNow website under MOH presents data on Covid-19 cases, tests, positive rate, deaths, hospitalisation, ventilation, and intensive care unit (ICU) utilisation rates, and vaccination in beautiful live graphics, broken down on the state level and by time period. The site also features the vaccination status, gender, age group, and nationality of Covid-19 cases and fatalities, Separately, MOH releases raw data on the epidemic on GitHub. 

In a media briefing yesterday, here is what the team said about the initial ideas and purpose of the project:

Dr Mahesh Appannan (CPRC Head of Data): My CPRC team reached out to these four gentlemen to see how we can best display the data in a way that Malaysians will understand; to move away from our conventional infographics and have a more interactive website for them to play around with the data.

(We want) to make things much easier, that’s one thing. But another thing is, for people who can look into the visualisations that we have, the data representations we have on Covid-19 now, they can provide us with valuable feedback and we are hearing out all the time now.

The MOH is there to hear the public’s comments and what now. Now that our data is so transparent, we can get much more insights from our fellow Malaysians. 

We have all this data, all this wealth of knowledge so (the point is) how do we present them to the people. That’s why we have CovidNow today.

Henry Lim (Creator of Malaysia Vaccine Tracker): For me, the reason is actually quite simple. As a Malaysian living overseas, I want a way to know when it is safe for me to go back to Malaysia. But then looking at the data plottage on social media, I find that some information was missing.

But (I realised) that the information is actually on GitHub. (That’s when) I thought is there a way, with my skill, (for me) to do a chart. I thought maybe I could build a website. At the same time, that was when the CPRC contacted me and said, let’s do it together.

The way I see it, I have the skill to build a website but I don’t have the skill to do the math to show the correct data. So, that’s why the collaboration between the CPRC, MOH, and (the four of) us is very important. If I were to do it myself, it would be impossible for me to do something like this. 

I previously did the @MYVaccineTracker Twitter bot and for me personally, when I first started building the bot in April, I started using optical character recognition (OCR) but I realised that wasn’t the best method. Then when someone told me that the Covid-19 Immunisation Task Force (CITF) published everything on GitHub, it was the best day of my life. 

For me, as a Malaysian, I (find it hard to) believe that the Malaysian government would publish something on GitHub — it’s like the world-class standard, not a lot of countries do this. After that, they kept adding more stuff, and eventually, we have something like the CovidNow website.

Lim Sheng Han (Creator of MY Vax Tracker): From my point of view, I’m a data scientist in my day job so I’ve been thinking about ways to help out the country to better manage the Covid-19 pandemic within my capacity and in what I know best.

We have been waiting for the government to release open data and we were really delighted when it finally happened in June 2021, I think. So, when the data was released we all jumped on it and like what Dr Mahesh said, about all the projects that were built on top of this data that was released, and that was when MOH really saw the benefits in open data. 

And from the open data community, what we were really impressed with is the use of GitHub. I think using GitHub as a platform, if you are a data analyst you know this very well, means there is a lot of transparency because every single data point that you upload, the history is all there. 

So, there’s a great amount of transparency and you really need to have a very mature data pipeline and a very high data discipline to be able to release open data on GitHub and I think from our point of view, what MOH has done with releasing data on the GitHub platform…it is really eye-opening to see them go through this shift into this culture of open data and using GItHub as a platform to release their data.

MOH is not just releasing one-time data but it’s on a daily basis. So, it’s really an unprecedented move on the part of MOH and CPRC. I think it is really commendable that they’ve acquired that data discipline and are also confident about their data integrity in order to release this data to the public.

And by committing to open data, they’re really submitting into a contract with the public to feed data quality in a timely manner every single day — and to achieve that is not a small feat at all.

So, when the MOH and CPRC approached us because we are very familiar with the data that has been released — we’ve built a couple of projects on top of it — and when they approached us to contribute towards building CovidNow, we jumped on it. 

The only question was what took you (MOH) so long to (get to) us… but we jumped on it, and we were really impressed that MOH did not stop at just releasing the data. They wanted to build a platform on which the public can visualise and be easily informed with the key Covid-19 indicators, and I think that is important because we want to be able to drive the correct narrative.

If we were to only release a large amount of data to the public (without visualising and highlighting key indicators), they may be open to misinterpretations.

We want to be able to show how we can interpret the data correctly and to clearly show the Malaysian public the true state of the pandemic as it is today.

Roshen Maghhan (Full stack developer): I think the government has done well by sharing this open data and I think it’s time for developers like us to play our part to make sure that the rest of the nation is well-informed about what is going on.

Calum Lim (Designer/Full stack developer): I think everyone summed up so well so I don’t have much to add to that.

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