My Opinion: Mine the data to fight pandemics

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As Malaysia reopens its borders this month, the country is still not using a key tool to fight Covid-19 data in the third year of the pandemic. Malaysia does not learn from or adopt other countries’ best practices and implement policies to help communities “coexist” with Covid-19.

To harness the power of data, government should work with the private sector to share information that can be used to create value, while creating a supportive and transparent regulatory environment. Data to fight the pandemic can help identify viruses, contain the spread, treatments and vaccines.

Public policy responses and private sector initiatives alike are influenced by and rely on data analysis. Access to real-time data is critical to understanding the epidemiology of the virus, calibrating public policy countermeasures such as social distancing, accelerating research, and fueling the development of diagnostics, treatments, and vaccines.

Many countries have tested and implemented best practices that government should adopt or study before the next pandemic or natural disaster hits the country.

Mobile location data to track tourists

Malaysia should capitalize on the use of Mobile Positioning Data (MPD) to track tourists in the country. Indonesia’s leading statistical body, Badan Pusat Statistics, in cooperation with its largest telecommunications provider, Telkomsel, uses aggregated and anonymized mobile position data (so that individuals are no longer identifiable) to track tourists’ movements.

MPD was first implemented in 2018 and measured visitors at the 18th Asian Games in Jakarta and Palembang and during the annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in Bali. This method provides a consistent source of data in situations where the production of traditional tourism statistics is limited. It also provides detailed data in terms of time and scope that help authorities make better decisions e.g. B. when to promote domestic tourism or form bilateral and regional travel bubbles.

Other countries are also using this approach to collect mobility data to understand people’s mobility and migration patterns caused by Covid-19. Statistics Korea (Kostat) and Data Ventures of Statistics New Zealand leveraged their partnerships with telecom providers in response to the pandemic. Kostat conducted pre- and post-Covid-19 population movement analysis, while Data Ventures prepared a report on the impact of Covid-19 on the local government central business district population. The data was then used to map the spread of the virus, design containment measures and assess the socio-economic impact of lockdowns.

Bangladesh went a step further when the a2i (access to information) team of Bangladesh’s Ministry of ICT negotiated with several telecom companies at the beginning of the pandemic for access to MPD in order to track its spread in near real time.

European Union space data

Since the start of the pandemic, satellites from EU member states have monitored traffic congestion at border crossings and mapped medical facilities, hospitals and other critical infrastructure. The information gathered by satellites and combined with artificial intelligence provides models for officials to understand and manage the emergency. National authorities could make informed decisions on easing lockdown rules used to curb the spread of the virus.

The data drove the development of the Galileo for Green Lane app for border officials and drivers to monitor, facilitate and expedite freight traffic at Green Lane crossings, enabling the transit of critical goods such as vaccines and food. Malaysia can use the same method, particularly during major festivals, to monitor the exodus from urban to rural areas and times of national disasters like last December’s torrential floods.

Tourism Analytics Network in Singapore

The Singapore Tourism Analytics Network (STAN) analyzes data on tourist behavior such as B. Spending behavior and length of stay in hotels. Tourism leaders at all levels can derive insights from data and make tourism management decisions during the endemic phase. The network (developed in collaboration with Adobe) integrated more than 20,000 internal data domains and signed 15 data sharing agreements with tech giants like Grab, Tencent and Expedia.

With STAN, the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) is able to analyze visitor source markets and engage with tourists by reading key trends, targeting specific audiences and creating personalized travel experiences. As countries reopen their borders, it is important for Tourism Malaysia to use data to attract a chunk of international visitors and host tourism-related sports and entertainment events after two disastrous years for the industry.

There is a cautionary tale about data sharing, as a lack of public trust can undermine the best initiatives, as illustrated by the recent MySejahtera controversy. Government can overcome this by addressing sensitivities and striving to protect privacy and security by adopting existing standards and practices. Two national policies have been successfully implemented in the region, supporting data sharing while protecting individuals. Singapore’s Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) and Personal Data Protection Commission (PDPC) have established a trusted data-sharing framework to facilitate the sharing of data between organizations and consumers by providing strong safeguards and clarity about compliance with legal regulations in connection with the sharing of data are created.

The second initiative is taking place in the Philippines, where the National Privacy Commission (NPC) has issued new guidelines on data-sharing agreements to clarify how data can be shared with third parties through a contractual, jointly-issued document stating the Terms of Agreements includes agreement between two or more parties.

The Malaysian Ministry of Health established a Health Data Warehouse in 2017 to collect health-related data from both public and private hospitals and enable providers to make more informed treatment decisions. But more needs to be done to leverage this data while updating various regulatory frameworks such as personal data protection, cybersecurity and intellectual property rights. The framework is already in place for government to adopt and build on what has been successfully implemented by other countries in their ongoing fight against Covid-19. Respective ministries should review these initiatives and implement those that bring the greatest benefit to Malaysia.


Jamil A Ghani is a researcher at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia

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