UCT researcher’s COVID-19 dashboard expands globally

27 May 2020 | Story Nadia Krige. Photo Adobe Stock. Read time 7 min.
Remmelzwaal’s dashboard offers comprehensive coronavirus statistics.
Remmelzwaal’s dashboard offers comprehensive coronavirus statistics.

When confronted with crisis, it is often the simple solutions that resonate most deeply with people. Leen Remmelzwaal, a PhD candidate in computational neuroscience at the University of Cape Town (UCT), discovered this first-hand when a dashboard he designed to offer South Africans a comprehensive overview of the latest coronavirus statistics started gaining international traction.

Born out of a personal need for a deeper understanding of how the virus was developing in South Africa, Remmelzwaal’s project started as a humble Excel spreadsheet logging COVID-19 case numbers, which he shared with family and friends.

However, he soon noted a general sense of confusion and fatigue among South Africans – driven, on the one hand, by a lack of reliable, unbiased information and, on the other, an overload of misinformation.

With his natural affinity for technology, Remmelzwaal decided to come up with a basic online platform that would offer a one-stop, easily accessible visual dashboard of the latest South African coronavirus statistics.

“I really wanted to get a sense of where we were heading, what our trajectory looked like and if we were getting better,” he explained. “The way I wanted to do that was through some basic visualisations.”

 

“I love the challenge of making something amazingly efficient while keeping it really simple.”

Using a shared Afrihost Linux server, the Bootstrap SB2 Admin HTML template, Chart.js JavaScript libraries for visualisations and PHP to run the back-end calculations, he created a lightweight web page that was mobile-friendly and wouldn’t require a large amount of data to access.

Within six hours, he was ready to launch and so the first iteration of Corona Stats (formerly COVID-19 Stats SA) saw the light of day on 23 March 2020.

“I’m always drawn to simplicity. I love the challenge of making something amazingly efficient while keeping it really simple,” said Remmelzwaal. “Which is exactly what I was aiming to do with the dashboard.”

Within the first two weeks of its launch, the site was already boasting an average of 1 500 unique visitors (UV) per day; by the Easter weekend, it had reached 3 000 UVs per day.

Branching out

Within no time, the simple and efficient dashboard was drawing attention beyond the confused, concerned and curious South Africans for whom it was first designed.

Starting with a UCT alumnus living in Scotland, Remmelzwaal found himself inundated with requests for the design of similar dashboards in other parts of the world.

With the technology already in place, producing a unique and fully functional dashboard was easily doable within 45 minutes. However, before taking that step, Remmelzwaal would spend a few hours liaising with the enquirer to establish the extent of COVID-19 information the dashboard would present, as well as whether they would be willing to take responsibility for updating the data on a daily basis.  

“I prefer to work in partnership with someone who is based in the country,” he explained. “While I can build the technology remotely, it is important that you have someone on the ground to keep tabs on the latest COVID-19 information.”

Staying true to the pursuit of simplicity, Remmelzwaal has made it as easy as possible for his partners to update the dashboards by leveraging Google Sheets.

“So, when they’re sitting in bed at night, they can actually just update the Google Sheet on their phones. The dashboard scans the Google Sheet twice an hour or every thirty minutes for new information.”

Finding the right partners

This, of course, brings an extra element into the equation that Remmelzwaal certainly had not foreseen when he set out with his personal project back in March: playing the role of a human resources officer.

“I do screen the person who’s asking for a particular dashboard. It’s not just a greenlight for anyone who asks. I have to make sure that I have the right person,” he said.

While it may be difficult to ascertain this in a virtual meeting, Remmelzwaal said that he tends to glean a lot from his partners through the way they communicate and respond to communication. Having a shared connection to UCT or another tertiary institution also helps establish a measure of credibility, he added.

Following the roll-out of the Scottish version in mid-May, dashboards for Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe and Namibia have followed in rapid succession. Dashboards for Botswana and Madagascar are also on the cards, with interest from, among others, Nigeria, Burundi and Ghana.  

Gathering information

One of the most interesting aspects of watching the platform grow has been seeing the different ways in which coronavirus information is distributed in different countries, Remmelzwaal said.

South Africa, he pointed out, has quite an established way of communicating, with the latest statistics being released through various official channels between 18:00 and 21:00 every evening. Remmelzwaal updates the South African dashboard with statistics from the National Coronavirus website and uses the Western Cape Government’s statistics to cross reference. 

“South Africa is leading the pack in terms of its regularity of sending data out. The rest of Africa doesn’t have that regularity or those official channels.”

In most other African countries, the latest statistics are released on Twitter by an official government account.

In the case of Zimbabwe, a hard copy printout of a table containing all the necessary information is made every day and stamped by an official. A photo is then taken of the document and shared on Twitter.

 

“South Africa is leading the pack in terms of its regularity of sending data out.”

Remmelzwaal’s partner in Zimbabwe feeds these statistics into the Google Sheet, which then gets picked up by the dashboard.

“So, it’s a paper-based system that uses Twitter to get the information out,” he said. “And from that, we’re able to create a fantastic, dynamic, responsive dashboard that works on all mobile devices for anyone that connects to the internet. In short: it’s the digital transformation of information in action.”

Over the next few months, Remmelzwaal will also be looking for ways to introduce machine learning, which will simplify the process of updating the dashboards even more.

In the meantime, however, his focus will remain on the roll-out of new countries.

“It’s been really valuable to realise how much value the skillset I’ve acquired can add to the lives of South Africans – and an increasing number of people elsewhere – at a time like this.”


Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Please view the republishing articles page for more information.


UCT’s response to COVID-19

COVID-19 is a global pandemic that caused President Cyril Ramaphosa to declare a national disaster in South Africa on 15 March and implement a national lockdown from 26 March.

UCT is taking the threat of infection in our university community extremely seriously, and this page will be updated regularly with the latest COVID-19 information.

Frequently asked questions

 

Daily updates


Friday, 11 September 10:05, 11 September 2020
Monday, 31 August 12:20, 31 August 2020
Wednesday, 12 August 10:20, 12 August 2020
Friday, 7 August 11:24, 7 August 2020
Thursday, 6 August 18:26, 6 August 2020
Monday, 27 July 14:00, 27 July 2020
Wednesday, 15 July 09:30, 15 July 2020
Monday, 13 July 14:25, 13 July 2020
Monday, 6 July 16:20, 6 July 2020
Thursday, 25 June 10:15, 25 June 2020
Tuesday, 23 June 12:30, 23 June 2020
Thursday, 18 June 17:35, 18 June 2020
Wednesday, 17 June 10:45, 17 June 2020
Tuesday, 2 June 12:20, 2 June 2020
Friday, 29 May 09:25, 29 May 2020
Monday, 25 May 14:00, 25 May 2020
Thursday, 21 May 12:00, 21 May 2020
Wednesday, 6 May 10:00, 6 May 2020
Tuesday, 5 May 17:05, 5 May 2020
Thursday, 30 April 17:10, 30 April 2020
Tuesday, 28 April 10:30, 28 April 2020
Friday, 24 April 09:35, 24 April 2020
Thursday, 23 April 17:00, 23 April 2020
Wednesday, 22 April 14:25, 22 April 2020
Monday, 20 April 17:45, 20 April 2020
Friday, 17 April 12:30, 17 April 2020
Thursday, 16 April 09:45, 16 April 2020
Tuesday, 14 April 11:30, 14 April 2020
Thursday, 9 April 09:00, 9 April 2020
Wednesday, 8 April 15:40, 8 April 2020
Wednesday, 1 April 15:50, 1 April 2020
Friday, 27 March 11:40, 27 March 2020
Thursday, 26 March 18:30, 26 March 2020
Tuesday, 24 March 15:40, 24 March 2020
Monday, 23 March 15:40, 23 March 2020
Friday, 20 March 16:00, 20 March 2020
Thursday, 19 March 09:15, 19 March 2020
Wednesday, 18 March 16:00, 18 March 2020
Tuesday, 17 March 12:50, 17 March 2020
Monday, 16 March 17:15, 16 March 2020

Campus communications


Call for proposals: TLC2020 10:15, 26 August 2020
SAULM survey and other updates 15:30, 5 August 2020
COVID-19 cases and other updates 15:26, 5 August 2020
New UCT Council and other updates 15:12, 15 July 2020
Upcoming UCT virtual events 09:30, 15 July 2020
Pre-paid data for UCT students 14:25, 22 April 2020
Update for postgraduate students 12:55, 20 April 2020
UCT Human Resources and COVID-19 16:05, 19 March 2020
UCT confirms second COVID-19 case 09:15, 19 March 2020
Update on UCT COVID-19 response 13:50, 11 March 2020
Update on COVID-19 17:37, 6 March 2020

Resources

Video messages from the Department of Medicine

Getting credible, evidence-based, accessible information and recommendations relating to COVID-19

The Department of Medicine at the University of Cape Town and Groote Schuur Hospital, are producing educational video material for use on digital platforms and in multiple languages. The information contained in these videos is authenticated and endorsed by the team of experts based in the Department of Medicine. Many of the recommendations are based on current best evidence and are aligned to provincial, national and international guidelines. For more information on UCT’s Department of Medicine, please visit the website.


To watch more videos like these, visit the Department of Medicine’s YouTube channel.

Useful information from UCT

External resources


News and opinions


Statements and media releases


Media releases



Read more  

Statements from Government



 
 

In an email to the UCT community, Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng said:
“COVID-19, caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2, is a rapidly changing epidemic. [...] Information [...] will be updated as and when new information becomes available.”

 

We are continuing to monitor the situation and we will be updating the UCT community regularly – as and when there are further updates. If you are concerned or need more information, students can contact the Student Wellness Service on 021 650 5620 or 021 650 1271 (after hours), while staff can contact 021 650 5685.

 

TOP