As Malaysia moves to endemicity, it must use every tool to stay ahead of public health issues

AS Malaysia reopens its borders this month, the country is still not utilising a major tool to fight Covid-19 in the third year of the pandemic – data. Malaysia is not learning from nor adopting the best practices in other countries and implementing policies to help communities “co-exist” with Covid-19. 

To harness the power of data, the government should collaborate with the private sector to share information that can be utilised to generate value while providing a supportive and transparent regulatory environment. 

Data to combat the pandemic can help with virus detection, mitigation of spread, treatments and vaccines. Public policy responses and private sector initiatives are equally informed by and reliant on data analytics. Access to data in real time is vital to understanding the epidemiology of the virus, calibrating public policy countermeasures, such as social distancing, accelerating research and encouraging development of diagnostics, treatments and vaccines.  

Many countries have trialled and implemented best practices that the government should consider adopting or study for implementation before the next pandemic and natural disaster.  

Mobile positioning data to track tourists  

Malaysia should leverage on the use of MPD to track tourists in the country. Indonesia’s statistic body, Badan Pusat Statistik, in cooperation with their largest telecommunications provider, Telkomsel, uses mobile positioning data to track the movements of tourists. First used in 2018, MPD measured visitors at the Asian Games in Surabaya and the International Monetary Fund-World Bank annual meeting in Bali. It provides a consistent data source in situations where the production of traditional tourism statistics is limited. It also furnishes granular data in time and scale that help the authorities make better decisions, such as when to promote domestic tourism or establish bilateral and regional travel bubbles.  

Other countries also use this new approach to gather mobility data to understand human mobility and migration patterns caused by Covid-19. Statistics Korea (KOSTAT) and Data Ventures of Statistics New Zealand leveraged on their partnerships with telecommunication providers in response to the pandemic.  

KOSTAT carried out population movement analysis before and after Covid-19, while Data Ventures developed a report on Covid-19’s impact on local councils’ central business district population. The data were then used to map the spread of the virus, design containment policies and evaluate the socio-economic impact of lockdowns. Bangladesh went a step further with the a2i (access to information) team of the Bangladeshi ICT Ministry negotiating access to MPD with several telcos at the onset of the pandemic, to track its spread in near real time. 

European Union’s space data 

Since the onset of the pandemic, EU member states’ satellites have monitored traffic congestion at border crossings and mapping medical facilities, hospitals and other critical infrastructure. Collected from satellites, combined with artificial intelligence, the information provides public officials with models to understand and tackle the emergency. National authorities could make informed decisions on easing lockdown rules used to halt the spread of the virus.  

The data were behind the development of the “Galileo for Green Lane” app for border officials and drivers, with the aim to monitor, facilitate and expedite freight traffic at green-lane crossings, thereby enabling the transit of critical goods like vaccines and food. Malaysia can use the same method, especially during major festivals, to monitor the exodus from urban to rural areas and times of national disasters, like last December’s torrential floods. 

Singapore tourism analytics network (STAN)  

STAN analyses data on tourist behaviour, such as spending patterns and length of stay in hotels. Tourism officials at all levels are able draw insights from data and make better decisions on tourism management during the endemic phase. The network (developed in partnership with Adobe) integrated more than 20,000 internal data domains and signed 15 data-sharing agreements with the likes of data giants Grab, Tencent, and Expedia.  

The Singapore Tourism Board could analyse visitor source markets and engage with tourists. STB read key trends, targetedaudiences and created personalised travel experiences. As countries reopen their borders, it is important for Tourism Malaysia to leverage on data to grab a share of international visitors following two disastrous years for the industry and host lucrative tourism-related sporting events and music festivals. 

There is a cautionary tale about data sharing as a lack of public trust can undermine the best initiatives as seen in the recent MySejahtera scandal. The government can overcome this by addressing sensitivities and through efforts to protect privacy and security by adopting existing standards and practices. There have been two national policies implemented successfully in the region that support data sharing while protecting individuals. Singapore’s Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) and Personal Data Protection Commission (PDPC) launched a trusted data-sharing framework to facilitate data sharing between organisations and consumers by providing strong safeguards and clarity on regulatory compliance related to sharing data.  

The second initiative is in the Philippines, where the National Privacy Commission (NPC) issued new guidelines on data-sharing agreements (DSA) to clarify how data can be shared with third parties through a contractual, joint-issuance document that contains the terms and conditions of the arrangement between two or more parties. The Malaysian Health Ministry established a health data warehouse (2017) to gather health-related data from both public and private hospitals, enabling providers to make more informed decisions for treatment. But more must be done to utilise this data while updating various regulatory frameworks, such as personal data protection, cybersecurity, intellectual property rights.  

The framework already exists for the government to adopt and build on what has been successfully implemented by other countries in their ongoing fight against Covid-19. The ministry should study these initiatives and implement those that will bring the greatest benefit to us.

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