Malaysia Dateline

Data sharing key to combating Covid-19

Access to scientific journals today are virtually free, and scientists are making viral genomes freely available in the public domain. In the competitive scientific world, this sharing of new knowledge on Covid-19 is totally unprecedented.

In complete contrast, political leaders are ostensibly bent on lockdowns and hoarding of potential vaccines for parochial national interests, unlike data scientists, who are opening up and sharing data and insights for the universal benefit of mankind.
How can Malaysia emulate this altruistic gesture in our national data management?

1. In the current context, the knowledge of our pandemic is equivalent to the cases data collected painfully every day. It would be unfortunate if this knowledge data, collected through public funding and resources, are not made available to other state agencies.

2. Interagency data sharing in Selangor, case data particularly, was the key to halting the second Covid-19 wave. Let us be clear that data sharing is not equivalent to breaching patient privacy – methods were set in place previously on how to share data while protecting personal data privacy and confidentiality.

3. This was done before, thanks to the close cooperation and data sharing between the Health Ministry, National Security Council, and the operation centres of the Selangor state government. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said now that we are facing a bigger third wave.

Data pipeline sharing between federal and state agencies should be resumed. Otherwise, the state governments, Selangor particularly, will be navigating the crisis in the dark.

4. The second data lake that Selangor independently pioneered and created previously – was the data lake of “healthy people (not patients)” and their movement – this is what culminated into SELangkah on May 5, 2020.

5. It was created as a safety net that we can fall back on, should a case be detected (so one can do retrospective contact tracing). It is also how we, in Selangor, determine the area for prospective case search since May 2020 – or what MOH now calls “Active Case Detection”, which is a major prerequisite for cluster busting.

6. As a crowdsourced data lake, SELangkah is a community-driven digital tracing of epic proportion – it’s the most effortless way a Selangorian can manifest their #kitajagakita.

7. People think it was built by the Selangor government. Let me correct that. It is built by every bit of data shared by Selangorians – the people, not the government. It works and remains the key strength of Selangor in keeping infection in check. People are kept informed, businesses are notified, and customer confidence is virtually restored.

8. The MOH followed through with our QR-based recipe and introduced MySejahtera check-in a month later on June 2, 2020. The government further mandated the use of the MySejahtera application for all businesses nationwide and fined them, if they fail to comply, beginning August 2020.

Two months down the road and a number of local transmissions later, a cursory look in social media indicates that citizens have been calling out their doubts on how the application confers benefits to the citizen with their contributed data.

9. People are losing trust in crowdsourcing their data, and this is an unfortunate development. The public campaign and movement that we started in Selangor – to educate people on the importance of leaving their contact details through QR scanning – dissipate along with public confidence when they can’t be sure that it is worthwhile.

10. In realising the potential of SELangkah as a game-changer in Covid-tracking, we opened the access to SELangkah to all MOH personnel in Selangor and Kuala Lumpur through their respective state Health Departments. It is unfortunate that MOH did not reciprocate our spirit of sharing and camaraderie, despite our repeated calls for integration to ease the citizens’ life.

11. No one has the complete knowledge of how to utilise data in combating Covid-19. All the more reason why we should have more interested persons and expertise collaborating in the spirit of #DemiNegara.

12. We again extend our hand in partnership in our joint cause against the raging Covid-19 pandemic. And we hope that the MOH call for a “whole of government and whole of society” approach not only must be done, it must also be seen to be done.

DR DZULKEFLY AHMAD is the chairperson of the Selangor Task Force Covid-19 and former minister of health.