This letter was sent to key figures in the Malaysian government as well as Ministry of Health, Malaysia on 28 March 2020.
During a recent press statement by the Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah, our Director-General of Ministry of Health, one journalist asked a question on how we are doing in terms of fatality rates compared to other countries. Dr. Noor Hisham then instantly did a quick calculation during the Q&A session and answered (with figures) on how we fare compared to the overall world fatality rate of COVID-19. Intrigued, I tried to look for more data about COVID-19 cases in Malaysia for further processing and analysis. This includes finding information about the distribution of clusters, close contacts, burden on each of the COVID-19 admission/treatment hospitals. However, I was surprised by how little the data that the authorities are sharing with the public. While the regular social media posts on infographics and data summary by the authorities is something commendable, there are opportunities for improvement in terms of data sharing with the public about the COVID-19 pandemic in Malaysia.
There are many benefits of being more transparent with the COVID-19 information. We are well-aware about the manpower shortage at the Ministry of Health, even before COVID-19 pandemic started to cause panic throughout multiple locations in the world. When the government is not making its data transparent enough, it may not shed a light on some issues due to limited (and skewed) interpretation of data. For example, we did not see the magnitude of urban poverty problem in Malaysia until a 2018 UNICEF report highlighted the extent of urban poverty in certain neighbourhood areas in Kuala Lumpur. Mapping our national poverty measurements with the general population may give some insights on national poverty but more localised issues can potentially be brought up if we enable the data access to a greater pool of talents.
The pandemic is new and in many parts of the world, the governments as well as the academicians are working round the clock to understand its nature and pattern. Availability of data is certainly something that everyone is looking for at this moment. In this challenging period, we look forward to reaping the tremendous benefits of having a greater data transparency. While the ministry may have enough expertise to analyse the existing data, Malaysia can reap further benefits by publishing more information in a format that is more accessible for data engineers and data scientists.
Other countries such as South Korea, United States and even China is making their data more transparent for public consumption. This allows for easier data analysis by different entities inside and outside of the government. As a result, the discussion sessions between the government departments and other important stakeholders will be more productive because the data was made readily available and easily accessible. Educational institutions, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and even the general public will be able to work together with the government to fight the pandemic and close any loophole that may jeopardise the effort.
As a citizen of Malaysia, I would like to humbly request for the Malaysian Ministry of Health to publish the data about the spread of COVID-19 without personally identifiable information and any other information that can be detrimental towards public order. One of the channels is through the government-owned portal, Data Terbuka Sektor Awam (www.data.gov.my). I believe that if we can have enough manpower to produce statements debunking fake news, we also should have enough manpower to make the existing data available to the public. This shall open more learning opportunities for our community to analyse the data and give valuable inputs to the government as necessary.