With data, we can respond better

  • Letters
  • Tuesday, 31 Mar 2020

The impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic in some respects are unprecedented in recent history. Based on data from the World Health Organisation (WHO), as at March 29, there were 575,444 confirmed cases involving 202 countries/territories/areas, and 26,654 deaths around the world.

Many countries are imposing total lockdowns, restricting movements, controlling borders or some combination of these measures. The result is disruptions in global supply chains and a weakening of consumption. An economic crisis is inevitable.

Now, more than ever, we need open data. Tackling what lies ahead of us is a complex task and we need to leverage our collective intelligence. Open data allows governments around the world, the private sector, researchers, and citizens to collaborate.

Moreover, a lack of information and communication in times of crisis often leads to panic and misinformation, which would only make things worse. Case in point, in 2017, the Smithsonian Magazine covered a story about the tragedy of the 1918 “Spanish flu” where the US government suppressed information under the pretext of keeping morale up. Consequently, US citizens looked for information elsewhere and probably found a lot of bad information. The deadly outcome was some 670,000 casualties in the United States. As the writer puts it, “with the truth buried, morale collapsed. Society itself began to disintegrate”.

Information related to essential items such as food is crucial in times of crisis. With Ramadan and Hari Raya coming up soon in April and May, this information is even more critical. A few days into Malaysia’s movement control order (MCO) period, some media reported farmers and fishermen finding it hard to sell their produce or catch, most likely due to logistical issues and the closure of some markets. Some resorted to social media to find buyers while others ended up dumping or donating their produce.

Open data could offer solutions to this issue. For example, detailed data on farmers based on their locations and the food they produce as well as collection centres could be used to link farmers with suppliers/marketing stakeholders. Apps could be developed by tech firms to inform farmers of the nearest collection centres to them.

The prospect of a possible shortage of some items such as face masks, hand sanitiser and food could also lead to profiteering by retailers. Enforcement officers have limited resources to curb this malpractice. Here, citizens could be mobilised to crowdsource data. For example, an app could be developed with pre-existing data of ceiling prices of essential items and information on retailers. Consumers could report immediately if a retailer sells an essential item beyond its ceiling price. This information would then alert the authorities and would also be made public for all consumers to see – it could act as a deterrent and also a punishment mechanism.

Data is needed for researchers to come up with evidence-based recommendations. Local think tanks – including Khazanah Research Institute, the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research, Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, Research for Social Advancement, and The Centre – as well as academics and researchers have offered the government recommendations to mitigate this crisis. They are eager to do more, but to be better advocates, researchers need more data – reliable and useful data. The government needs to help them so that they can help the government.

Senior Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Azmin Ali in a recent TV interview asked all ministries and agencies to consider the application of Big Data and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to provide solutions that benefit the rakyat. He gave an example where advanced technology application in agriculture could help the country reduce our dependence on food imports, especially now with the disruptions in the global food supply chain.

Earlier in March, the Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation Sdn Bhd (MDEC), the lead agency tasked with organising and leading Malaysia’s digital economy, introduced the #DigitalvsCovid movement. It encourages tech companies to offer digital solutions to mitigate the economic impact of Covid-19 on businesses and consumers. Interested companies are asked to fill in a form and all details will be featured in a press release.

We should definitely explore digital technology to solve the issues we are facing. However, Big Data and AI tech require data. Therefore, our first step should be to make sure we have a lot of reliable and accurate data to work with. I cannot overstate how models based on gross estimates or assumptions can be very misleading and may not solve problems. That is why we need open data. Open data removes red tape in obtaining data, especially in the current crisis where urgency is paramount.

The government holds a trove of data that is obtained and managed by using public funds. Therefore, the government should lead in opening up data. I suggest all government ministries and agencies take an immediate inventory of all their data. Then consider these five salient features of open data to make data available to everyone at any time.

> Complete: All data is made open by default unless there are valid justifications such as privacy and security concerns. Comprehensive metadata is included to avoid back and forth between data suppliers and data users.

> Primary: Provide the highest possible level of granularity.

> Timely: Data is made available as quickly as possible. During this pandemic, urgency is especially important.

> Accessible: Data is provided free of charge, under open license and is downloadable via the Internet.

> Machine processable: Data is in a machine-processable form such as CSV, and not PDF.

Covid-19 is both a public health and an economic crisis. We need scientists, public health experts, economists, public policy experts, data scientists, technology developers, government and the private sector to come together to fight this crisis. To do so, they need access to timely and accurate data. We also need informed citizens who are ready to cooperate. With open data, we can sharpen our response.


Research associate, Khazanah Research Institute (KRI)
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Covid-19 , Big Data , MCO


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