In January 2020, when only a handful of COVID-19 cases had been reported in India, Girish Khera, the co-founder and COO of Scientific Animations, realised that the coronavirus could infect India at an alarming rate.
However, even as the country geared up to fight a virus it knew little about, there was a paucity of data. That's when several entrepreneurs and organisations came together to crunch the missing data. Now, covid19india.org and covidIndia.org have become the go-to pages for COVID-19 updates.
For both these websites, data collection started with a simple spreadsheet.
Girish, the founder of CovidIndia.org, told TNM that their early efforts began in late February when they released a 3D animation about the virus and the biology behind it. âThat got 8 million views,â he said.
He then reached out to a relative, an IAS officer, to ask whether India was prepared for a possible pandemic. He ended up meeting with officials from the Health Ministry, and started a website to track the COVID-19 cases in India. âIt came from this desire to raise awareness about what was coming,â he said.
The push behind COVID19India was something similar. â[On] March 12, 2020, a few of us were discussing how India doesnât have one single source of information and maybe we can do something about it,â the team told TNM.
âThe original dashboard was very primitive, a single page with a map and a table with just the state data. We were following an open-source COVID tracker made to track cases in Japan covid19japan.com and were inspired by them.â
The teamâs idea was to have one spreadsheet which a few were allowed to edit and everyone could view. However, within a week, the website had too many visitors and editing became difficult. It was at this time that the team switched to a website that would display updated numbers.
As cases began to rise, the two websites branched out to involve more people to help with the data. In the beginning, with not much data on hand, and with multiple levels of administrations giving different data, collation became a challenge.
While both websites earlier relied on official Twitter handles and media reports for data, it has now streamlined as most states have dashboards or press releases.
Girish from CovidIndia.org said that they post data from any official source at the state or national level.
âThis includes state ministries, the Ministry of Health website, the Press Information Bureau or Twitter accounts of officials, whether they are state health ministers or the union health minister. As long as they are official accounts of officials, those also count as official data sources,â he said.
To overcome roadblocks in fact-checking, Girish says they go only by official sources âunless there's something that looks like there's a typo or there's something that just doesn't fit, in which case we conduct multiple verifications.â
Girish compares todayâs situation to the beginning of the pandemic when official sources were restricted to Wikipedia or the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 tracker. âIn the beginning, it was very âWild West-y. We were getting a lot of information from the news, and we had to corroborate that with official versions.â
Meanwhile, COVID19India said that collating the data to fit into a required format was a challenge. The team gets data from 35 different government sources, most of which come in different formats. Some bulletins report patient totals, some report individual patients details and some have paragraphs in vernacular language â and their challenge is to collate this data into a single accessible format.
Both websites work with the help of a team of volunteers.
âWe have a team of volunteers. We have a 21-year-old, Himanshu, who has been capturing data since January 27. And he was doing it for the entire world in the month of February. Then I started focusing on India starting March. We built groups of volunteers around him and we've turned that into proper teams. We also went into partnerships, and we're lucky right now to have a partnership with Jaipuria Institute of Management. They gave us 50 volunteers and interns who do all the data collection at a base level for cases,â Girish said.
At COVID19India, there are around 97 volunteers feeding data into the website.
âFirst around five to ten volunteers joined in and within a week, thousands of volunteers pitched in. Several groups were bifurcated to handle several functions. Currently, around 25 volunteers regularly monitor press releases and official Twitter handles to gather, structure and input data to the Google sheet. A large number of developers continue to contribute through Github. The number of contributors stands at 97 at the moment,â the team said.
With the cases touching 7 lakh, both teams say data crunching has become a challenge.
âWe have a sheet where we monitor the time when a health department publishes data and we break up our volunteers into shifts. So if there's some slow data at any point during the day, we're kind of constantly checking to decide if we need to parachute in and show those,â Girish added.
He further said that the biggest failure on Indiaâs part is not releasing enough data.
âAll the decisions we're making today about cases, about the biology of the virus, and the treatment of disease, are based on the limited data that we have, and on the data that many other countries have provided. But India is different. it has a different geography and a different demographic. We have also seen that this particular disease presents itself very differently in different places,â Girish said.
He further said that India is not publishing enough on the virus, but there just arenât enough submissions.
âThere's a lot more data we could produce that could also help us understand what is different about the virus in India and what is the same. Therefore, that could show us how we should attack it, or how our treatment protocols are working. Different states are doing different treatment protocols and if one state is doing a really good job of treatment protocols, we should be shouting from rooftops that this works,â he said.
Besides supplying the necessary data, the websites have also now branched out â providing lists of labs and hospitals, quarantine centres, current rules and regulations, ambulance services, and even busting fake news. The two teams have managed to contribute to filling a data-sized hole in Indiaâs COVID-19 fight.