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.” 

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

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.

Related stories

World of vaccines is a ‘fiendishly’ complex one

It is important that Africa, along with other regions of the Global South, builds its own vaccine-manufacturing capacity

Hawks swoop down with more arrests in R1.4-billion corruption blitz

The spate of arrests for corruption continues apace in Gauteng and the Eastern Cape.

SANDF hid R200m expenditure on ‘Covid’ drug it can’t use

Military health officials are puzzled by the defence department importing a drug that has not been approved for treating coronavirus symptoms from Cuba

Eastern Cape universities concerned by rising Covid cases

Fort Hare says 26 more students have tested positive while Walter Sisulu University says some of its students have been admitted to hospital.

SAA in talks to recoup R350-million in blocked funds from Zimbabwe

The cash-strapped national carrier is in the process of recouping its blocked funds from Zimbabwe, which could go towards financing the airline’s business rescue plan

The natural resource curse in Cabo Delgado

A humanitarian crisis looms as a violent insurgency continues to sweep over northern Mozambique. As many flee to safety, the question remains: who, or what, fuels the fire?

Subscribers only

Toxic power struggle hits public works

With infighting and allegations of corruption and poor planning, the department’s top management looks like a scene from ‘Survivor’

Free State branches gun for Ace

Parts of the provincial ANC will target their former premier, Magashule, and the Free State PEC in a rolling mass action campaign

More top stories

Vitamin therapy is for drips

It may be marketed by influencers, but intravenous vitamin therapy is not necessary and probably not worth the hype, experts say

Facebook, Instagram indiscriminately flag #EndSars posts as fake news

Fact-checking is appropriate but the platforms’ scattershot approach has resulted in genuine information and messages about Nigerians’ protest against police brutality being silenced

Murder of anti-mining activist emboldens KZN community

Mam’Ntshangase was described as a fierce critic of mining and ambassador for land rights.

Unite with Nigeria’s ‘Speak Up’ generation protesting against police brutality

Photos of citizens draped in the bloodied flag have spread around the world in the month the country should be celebrating 60 years of independence

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday