2021 Shortlist

The Kini News Lab Covid-19 tracker

Country/area: Malaysia

Organisation: Malaysiakini

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 10 Mar 2020

Credit: Aidila Razak, Lee Long Hui, Wong Kai Hui, Sean Ho, Thiaga Raj Servai, Hazman Hazwan, Syariman Badrulzaman

Project description:

The project is a website which includes a dashboard of key statistics regarding the Covid-19 pandemic in Malaysia (at national, state, district and subdistrict level), verified locations affected by Covid-19, cluster information, patient and death information, resources on how to stay safe during the pandemic and rules and regulations of lockdowns and other related information. 

It is published in English, Bahasa Malaysia and Chinese, with some key parts of the website published in Bengali, Nepali and Burmese to cater to the more than one million migrant worker population who are not English or Bahasa Malaysia literate.

Impact reached:

The dashboard and information website was the first to be produced in Malaysia providing a bird’s eye view of the pandemic in the country as well as key information about lockdowns and how to stay safe at this time. Since its launch, it has received 30.1 million page views and counting.

Unlike the official releases which are only in Bahasa Malaysia, the tracker publishes in six languages, including three used by blue-collar migrant workers communities who have limited literacy in English and Bahasa Malaysia and are unable to access such information otherwise.

When the pandemic started, much of the data was not provided to the public. To fill this gap, Malaysiakini reporters pressed the authorities for the data on a daily basis, forcing them to finally provide such information to the public every day.

One key information which the government continues to withhold are footprints of those infected. In other countries, like Singapore or Thailand, this is routinely shared as part of contact tracing so those who visited those locations at the same time could monitor themselves for symptoms and seek testing.

To date, the tracker is the only place where Malaysians can find such verified information nationwide. To this day, we receive daily alerts from communities about localised outbreaks in their area, which are not announced by the government.

The format in which the data is collected has also helped academic researchers in this field. We have provided the data to several universities upon request.

State government agencies are also using the tracker as a resource. The Selangor state government, for example, uses the data collated on locations affected by Covid-19 daily in their monitoring of local outbreaks and roll out prevention and containment strategies, including free community testing.

Techniques/technologies used:

The daily numbers are recorded on a Google spreadsheet. We then exported it into several JavaScript Object Notation (JSON) files.

We use JavaScript to write several scripts to parse the files to obtain the data we needed to visualise the numbers with different charts and tables on the tracker page.

The charts and tables were created with Highcharts JS API and react-table respectively.

The structure and layout of the game were built with JavaScript, JavaScript library React and React framework Next.js.

We also used a user interface framework Material-UI and CSS framework UIKit for the game’s user interface.

The graphic was done with Adobe Photoshop.

What was the hardest part of this project?

Collating the data and navigating the various releases to make sense of it, has been and continues to be the hardest part. Some of the information was not provided initially and had to be requested on a daily basis.

The data releases were also inconsistent, with some data released for a few weeks and then never again, or the information patchy.

Because state health departments can decide how, when and what data to release, the information is to this day, inconsistent across the states. One term would be used to refer to different things according to the state or some information is released by these states and not the other.

Unlike in many countries, the data is not provided in any form of API or even a machine-readable format, but through Facebook albums of photos of charts.

This has forced us to spend up to four hours daily to input the information manually. (Various attempts at automating the data were unsuccessful – it took longer prepping the .jpg charts for conversion that it did to manually input the data)

Collating and verifying the information on locations affected too is very challenging and continues to be a labour intensive endeavour.

As we are the only organisation to do this, there is high expectation from the audience for the information to be clean, up to date and timely.

Managing these expectations on a daily basis is one of the greatest challenges, especially as the very small team working on the tracker became smaller as part of the team had to move on to other projects, leaving only one person to work on the tracker full time.

This has been especially challenging this year, when we decided to retire part of the tracker, due to a lack of resources.

What can others learn from this project?

While information may be publicly accessible it doesn’t mean it is in fact accessible to many. It may be convoluted, in a language they don’t understand, in platforms they can’t access or just simply difficult to keep track of. Data journalists can play a role to sort, clean and present that information in a way that is easier to consume.

On a project management side of things, a key learning for us is how to manage monsters which we create. By this, we mean when rolling out a project like a tracker dashboard – especially one which somehow becomes an essential resource for many – it is important to plan and try to anticipate the trajectory of the project.

This will help in planning resources to allocate and how to manage expectations by readers on the project.

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