The Star Malaysia - Star2
Open data for a better Malaysia
‘Malaysia is increasingly becoming a reference when it comes to Covid reporting and open data.’
WITH the new Health Ministry came a new Covid-19 online dashboard. And in turn, a barrage of criticism.
Don’t get me wrong. The new dashboard at covidnow.moh.gov. my is really pretty to look at. Information is neatly displayed in charts and graphs, with vaccinations, ventilator use, ICU admissions, hospitalisations, cases and deaths updated once a day.
But some people are still upset because the government didn’t pay anything for it. In particular, they think the government sponged this new website off the blood, sweat and tears of young, idealistic Malaysians who did their work for free.
Here I’d like to point out these critics are the same who quote charts (taken for free) from the World in Data website to show how supposedly behind Malaysia is in the fight against Covid-19. I guess I should be glad we value data so highly.
As the pandemic crashed into 2021, there was an increased demand for data from the government. Although there were regular press briefings, data was drip-fed to the public inconsistently. In November last year, the thenhealth Minister said the ministry would not share raw Covid data to “avoid the risk of contradictory or variable interpretations of data by various agencies that could possibly lead to public panic”.
However, the government slowly began to change its stance. At the end of June this year, the National Covid-19 Immunisation Programme announced that it was going to share daily and cumulative vaccination information (bit. ly/github_my). Less than a month later the Health Ministry shared more data about Covid-19 case numbers, hospitalisations and some cluster and check-in data.
The big difference was that the data was presented as “Open Data”. The files themselves looked fairly basic, like a large spreadsheet with lots of dates and numbers in rows and columns. But it was easy to write a program to read that data and what you did with it was completely up to you.
And for some members of the public, what they wanted to do was build their own graphs, charts and dashboards.
Among them were Henry Lim, Calum Lim, Sheng Han Lim and Roshen Maghhan. Henry runs @ Myvaccinecount, which is a Twitter account that keeps track of how many vaccination shots are given in Malaysia each day, while Sheng Han runs MY Vax Tracker, a dashboard with similar information.
I suspect it was this earlier work that caught the attention of the government, and somebody must have thought it should be given greater prominence. This led to a collaboration and a new dashboard hosted on an official government domain.
For me, criticising them for helping the community for free is like criticising people in a neighbourhood who volunteer to organise a Rukun Tetangga nightly patrol and being upset that only a few people participate, while the rest get an extra hour or two of peaceful sleep.
The crazy thing is that people are sometimes happy to help for free if they can. A study in the Journal of Happiness Studies of volunteers in Britain found that people who volunteered were more satisfied with their lives and rated their overall health as better. To paraphrase Barbra Streisand, people who help other people are the happiest people in the world.
About 25 years ago I worked on the Smart School project. Whether it achieved its end goal or not is a discussion for another day. But in the final month, as we slammed against deadlines, some of us worked 100-hour weeks (or even more). This team included representatives from more than a dozen multinational companies like Oracle, Ibm/mesiniaga and NTT, who burned the midnight oil alongside Education Ministry officers.
And these private sector companies had volunteered those workers. The government didn’t pay a single sen for them.
For me, it was a matter of pride. I woke up every day thinking, today I will do a little bit more to improve Malaysian schools and change the lives of future generations for the better. And it felt good. Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.
A key point is that both sides must show effort. The Covidnow dashboard would not have happened if the government hadn’t shared its data (for free) in the first place. And just producing numbers isn’t the end of the story, as the recent debate about backlogs in death reporting demonstrates. But that debate wouldn’t have happened without that data being shared in the first place.
And Malaysia is doing it well. Edouard Mathieu, head of data at the Oxford University-associated Our World in Data project, tweeted on Sept 9 that “Malaysia is increasingly becoming a reference when it comes to Covid reporting and open data”.
I think it’s fair to say that motives behind sharing work and data go beyond simple altruism. The government gets to leverage a wider pool of talent, the geeks get to showcase their abilities and talents and put themselves in the shop window for future projects.
But this doesn’t dilute the importance of the end goal, and the drive towards it. As Sheng Han tweeted succinctly: “The idea behind #opendata is simple: an all-of-society approach to work towards a similar goal. That for Malaysia, is to win the battle against Covid-19.”
Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Write to Dzof at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.
I think it’s fair to say that motives behind sharing work and data go beyond simple altruism. the government gets to leverage a wider pool of talent, the geeks get to showcase their abilities and talents and put themselves in the shop window for future projects.