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Jakarta Post

Using big data to fight pandemic

Jakarta   /   Tue, March 17, 2020   /   11:53 am
Using big data to fight pandemic A paramedic of the Magen David Adom (Israel's national emergency service) holds a bagged and sealed COVID-19 coronavirus disease screening test kit during a response training exercise in the central Israeli city of Kiryat Ono on February 26, 2020. (AFP/Jack Guez)

As of March 14, at the time of writing, the government had declared that 96 persons had tested positive for COVID-19, an exponential jump compared to last week when only two cases had been reported.

With a mortality rate so far of 3 to 4 percent and its highly transmittable nature — more than 156,000 people have been infected worldwide — the pandemic has created shock, fear and panic on almost every inhabited continent, except for perhaps the least impacted, Africa.

Locally, debates have been polarized on the government’s transparency and capacity and on the panic buying of hand sanitizers and other supplies. They have been less focused on the fundamental question: “How can the spread be stopped before it is too late?”.

As the home of four unicorns and one decacorn, Indonesia should be able to use information technology and big data for both preventive and also curative responses to the pandemic.

An app that serves as a “human GPS” and records someone’s mobility would be able to perform automatic tracing of people who use this app.

When someone tests positive for COVID-19, the big data can analyze who has been in close contact with the infected person — indicated by the proximity of the location between the case and other users over a significant amount of time — and send alerts to authorities to find these persons.

This could reduce the burden and shorten the time spent on manual tracing, which currently involves the State Intelligence Agency.

As a vaccine is still under development and said to be at least 18 months away from commercialization, to date there is no default treatment for the disease.

Read also: Jokowi finally takes COVID-19 seriously. But his leadership leaves much to be desired

With almost 100 patients and many more expected before the increasing curve of infections levels off, health authorities should be able to record the applied medication and treatments and the patients’ responses to find out statistically which treatment is the most effective.

This approach is similar to efforts to find a cure for cancer in countries with advanced medical systems, where all patients’ data — especially those who recover — are taken and processed by algorithm to find something in common that gives doctors a lead about the best medication.

Simple tracking, such as data on patients’ average time to recover when receiving treatment, is also useful to know how many more beds are needed following an increase in the number of patients. This may give us a better idea that is backed-up by data.

Data on the spread pattern, for instance on how Indonesia’s first recorded case was in Depok, West Java, near Jakarta and has now spread with infections confirmed in several areas, would help neighboring local administrations anticipate possible positive cases, including by upgrading local medical facilities and preparing policies for a worst-case scenario.

All policies and government measures can be communicated directly via messaging services with features like WhatsApp to ensure recipients have read the notifications.

Instead of triggering panic, I am sure that citizens will see such measures as the government’s effort to be prepared as best as possible — unlike right now, when we do not receive SMS messages from authorities regarding the pandemic, but do receive text notifications to register our phone numbers or reminder emails to file our annual tax returns. Are our lives worth less than our obligation to file taxes?

As data is now said to be the new oil — the price of oil has in fact dipped due to the geopolitics of supply and demand — the value of data can translate to millions of peoples’ lives.

If technology-based companies like Gojek, Tokopedia, etc. use big data to gather an understanding of customer behavior for profit-oriented purposes, there is no reason why the government cannot use it for the sake of peoples’ well-being, particularly in this time of emergency.

Having been to many rural areas all around the Indonesian archipelago, which lack easy access to transportation, medical services and medicines, I fear that once infections reach that far, there will be no way we can cure people.

We are therefore on borrowed time and all efforts to stop the spread are worth considering.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.