Dr Muzzammil Ismail is a Public Health Registrar in the School of Public Health and Family Medicine and the Western Cape Government, with an apparent flair for user interface design. With the expertise and support of the Health Impact Assessment Directorate led by Dr Melvin Moodley, the Provincial Health Data Centre led by Professor Andrew Boulle, the Epidemiology and Surveillance Unit led by Professor Mary-Ann Davies, the Health Information Management Directorate led by Adam Loff, and the Centre for e-Innovation (Department of the Premier), Muzzammil designed the provincial coronavirus dashboard.
The brief was simple
The Western Cape Government needed to be as transparent as possible with COVID-19 statistics and allow for citizen accountability to the health system’s response.
The response was rapid
In just two weeks, the respective teams developed the fully interactive public dashboard. The excitement in Muzzammil’s voice is almost tangible. “We aimed to be as good, or better than similar platforms in other countries.” Have they achieved it? After being shortlisted for a BCX Digital Innovation Award, winning silver at the national New Generation Awards, and winning the Africa Tech Award for use of Technology in the Public Sector, it’s safe to say that they have exceeded their own expectations.
“The quality of online resources has improved tremendously, and I truly believe anyone can learn and apply these skills. I don’t have a formal background in computer or data science but I am certainly a lifelong student of all tools that can add value, streamline processes and ultimately improve patient care.”
Understand the process
Fully automated, the dashboard serves citizens and health care workers across the province. It helps us understand the full impact of the pandemic on our immediate surroundings. Muzzammil explains that the Provincial Health Data Centre is the dashboard’s engine room, pooling data from both private and public labs into a single system. The Data Centre team manages the quality of the data before it goes public. “As with all technology, there are hiccups, and teams work together after hours to troubleshoot issues,” he shares.
The dashboard is updated between 12:00 and 13:00 every day, including positive cases from the afternoon before and the morning of. The data is shared with the media and screenshots of the dashboard are shared on WCG social media accounts to reach as many people as possible. Based on user feedback, the dashboard has undergone several iterations to improve usability and public value. “I often log on to Facebook and Twitter to read people’s comments and find ways to improve the system,” shares Muzzammil.
Are you familiar with the phrase, “Knowledge is power”? Most of us are. Most of us are also familiar with checking weather forecasts to help plan our days ahead. In a similar way, the public dashboard empowers every connected citizen with the knowledge to make better choices. Just as you’d check the weather, our COVID dashboard allows you to check infection rates across the province – by region, date, and even age group.
According to Muzzammil, the system is designed to “bridge the gap between people who are comfortable with technology and those who aren’t”. A simple click on a specific region will help you identify a spike or dip in recorded cases. You can also check your personal COVID-19 risk profile with the help of the self-assessment tool in the lower right corner of the screen.
Spot an outbreak
The dashboard allows you to select specific areas using a mapping tool. Once selected, you can see the infection rate in that area. A spike in the graph indicates a spike in cases. You’d be able to identify an outbreak immediately and act accordingly. The time-scrubbing feature allows you to track cases over a specific time period dating back to April.
Prepare to innovate
Andrew explains that the dashboard has shown us the value of internal expertise. He shares that “the biggest lesson learnt is that if you’ve managed to build some degree of data competence, you will be able to adapt during times of crisis”.
A crisis gives us a golden opportunity to test and nurture innovation. Recalling a quote that he had recently heard, he shares that, “we build defences during times of peace in order to be ready during times of war”.
People behind the numbers
The dashboard is built on the principles of safety, accuracy, and intuitive design. “There are real people behind these numbers,” says Muzzammil, which is why reported deaths are not linked to geographical data. For example, if people can pinpoint who has died from COVID-19 and where they are located, families could potentially face stigmatisation or harm.
Ingenuity in government
According to Muzzammil, the quality of the public dashboard mirrors the quality of teamwork behind it. “I don’t think I’ve ever been this busy. I’m excited about this work. What comes out strongly is a culture of resilience amongst our teams. Despite the anxiety and concern, what COVID gave us was a sandbox to respond. It kicked us into gear. Among the many lessons this dashboard has taught us, one stands out quite clearly: If we collaborate and hone the skills within the public service, we will almost certainly be on the path to improving the health of the population we serve.”This article was republished with permission from the Western Cape Government Better Together Magazine.
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