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From Mathare slum to Kenya’s Covid war room

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In March, last year, hours before the Ministry of Health announced the country’s first Covid-19 case, a group of computer scientists in Kilimani were onto something revolutionary.

Many months later as a result, the government two weeks ago launched the Center for Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis (CEMA), a national data centre to support the control, elimination, and eradication of infectious diseases in Eastern and Central Africa.

Qhala, a Nairobi-based tech company that seeks to improve operational efficiency and launch of new ventures, was burning the midnight oil to answer the question: how could data contribute to the national response in Kenya?

A few months earlier, Dr Shikoh Gitau, a University of Cape Town computer science graduate and her team were busy developing a digital contact tracing tool to help the government respond to rising cases of cholera in the country.

Dr Thumbi Mwangi and Dr Loice Ombajo who heads the Infectious Disease Unit at Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) came on board and they all put heads together to bring to light data that was publicly available but had never been used for evidence-based decision-making.

Dr Shikoh Gitau, the CEO of Qhala, a Nairobi-based tech company that seeks to improve operational efficiency as well as build and launch new ventures.

Pool

In an interview with Nation, Dr Gitau, who was born in Mathare slum, highlighted that data should be freely available.

“If data is just in the hands of a few people they can use it to tell us what they want or feel like but if everyone is looking at the same data set, we will have more enriching interpretations of that particular set.  The way a data scientist will look at the set is not the same way a journalist, economist or epidemiologist will look at the same set and this is why even in our own team we countercheck our biases by ensuring that many sets of eyes look at the same data,” the expert explained.

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“The data teams collected, coded and visualised these data sets to create epidemiological models and scenarios. It was these data-driven scenarios compiled by Qhala that informed the decision to lock down the country, saving countless lives in the early days of the pandemic,” Dr Gitau disclosed.

The innovators say they never imagined that the experience would come in handy as all the National Emergency Response Committee (NERC) responses thereafter have leaned heavily on the work of the CEMA team.

Kevin Juma, a software engineer based in Nairobi who specialises in building data pipelines and multi-source data streams, agreed with her.

“Making data available promotes inference-driven judgement.

“Democratising data involves creating common data models and configuration-driven pipelines to enable capabilities such as data lakes. Unifying this data and exposing it to various sources means that data which was once available to specific people is now available to all.

“This means that using this vast repository, the country can tap into its pool of software engineers and data scientists who can apply their skills in solving some of the most complex problems by building models and algorithms for analytics, recommendation engines, collaborative filtering among other useful tools,” he explained.

He however cautioned that as data literacy skills grow, so should vigilance against abuse and other forms of malpractices

According to the Chief Administrative Secretary (CAS) at the Ministry of ICT, Maureen Mbaka, the government is keen to develop a robust policy, legal and regulatory framework and digital skills competencies to accelerate the digital transformation and spur growth in the technology sector.

“So today, I want to congratulate the partnership of CEMA for its agility, for its steadfast dedication to making available clear and reliable data that, ultimately, saved many lives in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. They could have sat back and joined the ranks of the Twitter warriors, criticising the government’s efforts. Instead, they got involved, provided concrete solutions and made a visible impact,” Ms Mbaka said during the official launch.

llidigu@ke.nationmedia.com

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