While the extension of the South African lockdown until the end of April might not have been unexpected, many are concerned about the long-term impact this will have on the country. This extends to more than the economic repercussions but the human component as well. This is where data analysis becomes critical in helping understand where we are in the fight against the virus and what the new normal will look like.

“Up to now, national and business leaders as well as medical experts have been relying on data and the insights it may hold to get direction on how best to guide the interventions against the coronavirus, Covid-19. The ability to identify, track, and trace is critical in the quest to ‘flatten the curve’. These near real-time tracking events are being extracted at a global level and assisting scientists, medical professionals, and leaders in their evaluation and decision-making process,” says Andreas Bartsch, Head of Service Delivery at PBT Group.

Business leaders, both local and abroad, are also continuously monitoring the trends, reviewing economic indicators, assessing risks, and evaluating scenarios as they look for ways to survive in what can at best be described as challenging times.

Making sense of data

If the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted anything then it is the fact that having an abundance of data available means little if it is not leveraged. However, if analytics is invested in, the possibilities can be endless. In fact, analysing data can produce insights decision-makers across government, private sector, and medical did not have before. These insights become critical to adapt to market changes faster than was previously possible.

A presentation made to Parliament’s portfolio committee on health following the extension of the lockdown in South Africa has illustrated this. Informed by research from the University of Cape Town’s Modelling and Simulation Hub Africa, it showed that the extra few weeks the country will spend in self-isolation has allowed the government two more months to prepare for a flooding of hospitals at the end of winter.

“Data can be used in a number of ways to help fight the disease and others like it. Take Facebook as an example. It has access to unprecedented amounts of personal information. Together with researchers at Harvard University’s School of Public Health and the National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan, the social media platform is sharing anonymised data about people’s movements. Combined with high-resolution population density maps, this is helping researchers forecast the spread of the virus,” says Jessie Rudd, Technical Business Analyst at PBT Group.

Valuing its quality

Rudd believes that data quality should never be underestimated. With so much data to handle, the management of data becomes critically important to ensure its quality and that intelligible insights can in fact be derived from the available data. At a basic foundational level, this involves the process of sorting through and merging data accurately – especially considering the various data types, including structured and unstructured data. Poor data quality can only result in poor data results.

Bartsch agrees. “Never before has technology, data science, and artificial intelligence (AI) been more critical. The response of the data science community of health, financial or research institutions across the globe has been one of urgency, collaboration, and knowledge sharing, with the demand to collate and translate large volumes of data at high speed,” says Bartsch.

The (AI) fight

So how can the combination of data, analysis, algorithms, and AI be used to help humanity?

Rudd says that Google’s DeepMind division has been using the latest AI algorithms and its computing power to understand the proteins that might make up the virus. BenevolentAI also uses AI systems to build drugs that can fight the world’s toughest diseases. Within weeks of the outbreak, both resources were successfully utilising its predictive capabilities to propose existing drugs that might be useful.

Researchers are using the cloud computing resources and supercomputers of several major tech companies such as Tencent, DiDi, and Huawei to fast-track the development of a cure or vaccine for the virus. The speed these systems can run calculations and model solutions is much faster than standard computer processing.

“In a global pandemic, technology, AI, and data science have become critical to helping societies effectively deal with the outbreak,” says Rudd.

Even though the lockdown is a stressful time for everybody, there has been glimpses of hope from the data already gathered.

“President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement to extend the lockdown was one of courage and care. Such a decision had to be based on comprehensive data analysis to understand how all the various scenarios will play out. But more than that, this analysis has put the health and safety of all South Africans at its core,” concludes Bartsch.

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