Filling the gaps in our Covid-19 data

Accurate data is at the centre of mitigating risk and preventing widespread panic and sensationalism during a natural disaster such as the Covid-19 pandemic. The facts allow people to make informed decisions so they can reduce their exposure and also get help to where it is needed. 

This is according to two scientists who have released a preprint of a paper titled A Framework For Sharing Publicly Available Data to Inform the Covid-19 Outbreak in Africa: A South African Case Study. Vukosi Marivate, the University of Pretoria’s Absa chair of Data Science, and Herkulaas Combrink, a PhD computer science candidate at UP and research coordinator at the University of the Free State, are looking at what lessons can be learned about Covid-19 from the data available.

The first big hurdle they discovered was the way that the government has presented data about Covid-19. 

Information about the number of tests performed, the number of confirmed cases, which regions are affected and the mortality rate is published by the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD). Health Minister Zwelini Mkhize releases these numbers daily, along with demographic data such as age, gender, travel history and the mode of contraction. But the nuanced data is not included in the NICD information. 

Vukosi and Combrink state that these sources of information are valuable, but are potentially ineffective ways of providing information to the public. Additionally, the format in which the data is presented is not computer-readable and has to undergo processing to be used and stored. 


The two note that: “The impact of not having useful, usable and desirable information has a direct effect on management strategies and responses from the public in relation to the disease.”

After seeing this hole in the data capturing, storage and sharing of Covid-19 information, a dashboard run by the Data Science for Social Impact (DSFSI) research group at the University of Pretoria was created. This dashboard collates information from the various platforms the government has scattered it on, so that the public has one site to go to it and at a glance get a clearer picture of the situation in South Africa.

This information goes beyond the simple case breakdown and has started to include more detailed information such as on the number of hospitals in the country.

“Data are one of the most important assets during a crisis. Unfortunately, not prioritising this commodity had complications during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic from a South African perspective,” reads the paper. “To prevent this from happening, the DSFSI research group has started collaborating and expanding this type of methodology to create a line list for the rest of the African continent. The data from this project led to a discussion between DSFSI and the NICD and DoH [department of health], in an attempt to assist the situation.” 

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Athandiwe Saba
Athandiwe Saba

Athandiwe Saba is a multi award-winning journalist who is passionate about data, human interest issues, governance and everything that isn’t on social media. She is an author, an avid reader and trying to find the answer to the perfect balance between investigative journalism, online audiences and the decline in newspaper sales. It’s a rough world and a rewarding profession.

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