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CODE-EXISTING

India’s best covid data are coming from open-source collaboration

A man wearing a protective face mask walks past a mural on a street, amidst the spread of COVID-19, in Mumbai
Reuters/Francis Mascarenhas
All in this together.
  • Ananya Bhattacharya
By Ananya Bhattacharya

Tech reporter

Published Last updated

The curtains have come down on India’s first comprehensive and reliable covid-19 dashboard, but its legacy lives on.

Sparked by anonymous Reddit posts about the dearth of covid data, Jeremy Philemon, a computer science student from Bahrain, created an open-sourced website on GitHub that became the destination for all sorts of data—active cases, deaths, testing, and vaccination rates.

Covid19india.org was the labour of over 300 volunteers. The site, inspired by an open source covid tracker in Japan, had clocked upwards of 4.4 billion visits by August 2021. But two months on, it would fold.

Why covid19india.org shut

The volunteers had been complaining of fatigue since September 2020, and in February 2021, they debated calling it quits. Instead, they scaled down data collection based on “the necessity of not overloading people with work” and “the reality of some of the data losing its importance.”

After clawing their way out of a debilitating second wave in April and May, the volunteers were ready to move on. “With our work and personal lives limping back to normalcy, we believe it’s time for us to look ahead and focus on them,” they said in a blogpost. The last update to the site was on Oct. 31.

The post bidding farewell amassed over 1,500 comments of gratitude, many from people who had made visiting the site a part of their daily routine.

covid19india.org
A sampling of the comments on the farewell blog post.

With the emergence of omicron and the threat of a third wave looming, several people started pleading with the team to resume their service. For a while, there was no response. But on Dec. 30, the team referred them to three websites, all of which looked exactly like covid19india.org.

This wasn’t a coincidence—it was the fruit of collaboration.

Sharing open-source code for covid dashboards

At the time of shuttering, the covid19india.org developers noted there were more reliable sources for covid data than when they started, including the Ministry of Health, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), and international organizations like Johns Hopkins University.

However, government data remain clunky and incongruent. The ministry of health’s information is scattered in different pdfs and jpegs, rendering them difficult to download and streamline. While districts and states share granular data, there’s no uniformity in how they present it.

Covid19india.org had already ironed out a bunch of kinks, from verifying data from different sources to fixing discrepancies. They had also automated much of their manual labour.

Before shutting down, they left a detailed post on how to use their application programming interface (API).”We advise analysts and other dashboards that feed off our APIs to start planning their transition to an alternate data source,” the team said. And people did.

A banner atop one of the new sites, covid19bharat.org, says it’s “an effort to follow in the footsteps” of the original tracker. Another, covid19tracker.in, thanks covid19india.org’s team “for their outstanding work in creating the original portal, and for making their code base public.”

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