A Resurgence of Civic-Tech Culture To Co-Develop a Covid-19 Dashboard

The key people behind a virus tracking site covid19japan.com — (from left) Shane Reustle, Jiahui Zhou and Alastair Tse — are contributing their time on a volunteer basis.
  • Many foreign residents of Japan were unable to get a clear picture of how the virus was spreading. 
  • Like many people, Shane Reustle and Jiahui Zhou tried to visit websites run by the health ministry and local municipalities. 
  • Whereas, their attempts to quickly grasp the situation were — and sometimes still are — hampered. 
  • It is due to the infrequent site updates, a shortage of multilingual information and overly granular statistics.
  • To overcome this challenge, Shane Reustle, Jiahui Zhou and Alastair Tse emerged out to create a https://covid19japan.com/.
  • The purpose of the website is to provide a simple, easy-to-understand tracker of the COVID-19 cases in Japan.

An interesting article published in The Japan Times enumerates the events that led to the development of https://covid19japan.com.  As a result, this purposeful venture is helping many people to try to get a clear picture of how infections were spreading in the world’s third-largest economy.

A glimpse at the techies’ views

In most countries, it’s been pretty straightforward how many cases they have,” said Reustle, a Tokyo-based software engineer. But in Japan, you have this really complicated system of cruise ship passengers, charter flight passengers, officers on the ship, etc.,” he said, referring to the weekslong saga of an outbreak aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship that eventually led to more than 700 infections. Some different organizations count them differently.”

Such frustration was echoed by Zhou, a designer based in Tokyo.

The information provided by the government was really confusing,” she said of her initial struggle. In the beginning of February, the information was all in Japanese, and we were thinking probably there is the need to provide more up-to-date, transparent information in English.”

Civic-tech culture to supplement government services

The two of them, who knew each other from running separate technology communities in Tokyo, were inspired to co-develop covid19japan.com.  It is a website that provides a simple, easy-to-understand tracker of the COVID-19 cases in Japan.

The bureaucracy is slow to go digital. Hence, COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a resurgence of what is known as civic-tech culture.  Here, citizens use their information-technology skills to supplement government services.

Deja vu

When the triple calamity befell Japan in March 2011, volunteer-driven projects seeking to visualize key disaster-related data sprang into existence.  This lead to what many considered to be a blossoming of the civic-tech movement in Japan.

Among such initiatives was Safecast, a nonprofit organization.  It enabled citizens to collect and share radiation data following the Fukushima nuclear crisis. Azby Brown, a lead researcher for Safecast, says that, nine years on, he sees the same kind of thing unfolding in response to the coronavirus outbreak in Japan.

The first red flag for him was what he perceived to be the scarcity of credible information made available by the government about quarantined Diamond Princess passengers.

Brown’s mistrust deepened further when he attempted to trace the contact history of Japanese bus drivers.  He also tried to trace others who contracted the novel coronavirus after spending days in close proximity to foreign tourists. The amount of research he has had to conduct into Japan’s comparatively low volume of testing, he said, is another source of concern.

It was so hard for me to find out, and I’m a researcher,” Brown said. I’ve been doing this with Fukushima-related data for almost nine years and kind of getting good at going through the government website. And it was very frustrating for me. So it must be very frustrating for average people.”

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Source: The Japan Times



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