Big data in the coronavirus battle plan
Coronavirus (the virus causing the disease Covid-19) has two universal problems: no vaccine or drug has been developed as yet, and the diagnostic tools are scarce. This combination has dangerously multiplied the risk of infecting Bangladesh. Because, our population density is much higher than those countries that have been fatally hit by far (see the graph).
Our healthcare system reasonably functions up to the grassroots level. It is, however, historically incapacitated to fight any pandemic. Not the headcount of doctors and nurses, but standard procedure to contain a pandemic is the missing link. This is more of a structural, rather than a financial or technical, problem. Yet everyone is giving their best shot. The question is: for how long?
We have missed the bus
Bangladesh government has rightly allowed the en masse homecoming of expatriate citizens, especially the ones from Italy. But a series of missteps has eclipsed the government's humane gesture. Screening after disembarkation and tagging a local mobile phone number with each passenger's passport details at the immigration desk before temporally caging the suspected cases in the notoriously mismanaged quarantine facilities have left them untraceable. Authorities are now clueless about the illness and wellness of the suspected returnees, who have been diluted into the ocean of nationwide rural population.
These living souls are the second only pillar, after garments, of our foreign currency reserve. And they, certainly, never get any subsidy. A free mobile connection to each of them at immigration would not cost the exchequer an arm and a leg. In return, the government could easily track their location and movement by using the inputs from mobile operators. Thailand has strictly applied this simple method for incoming tourists. And multiple agencies with diverse portfolio are coordinating it. Unity in diversity within the administration is a government's strength for crisis management. It is missing in Bangladesh.
What we should do
Now the government has decided to apply big data analytics using mobile phone users' information to contain the Covid-19 pandemic. "The government has initiated a process to draw a digital map to track coronavirus cases and find out areas susceptible to contamination by using mobile users' information—a move that may help portray the real picture of a possible outbreak. The operators will share the data with a national monitoring centre and the Access to Information (a2i) project under the ICT Division every six hours, and the two will then develop the map," according to a report by The Daily Star on March 29. There are points to ponder.
The National Telecommunication Monitoring Centre (NTMC), an agency under the home ministry, is the only legal entity to analyse mobile user's data. The workforce of NTMC is composed of individuals from all security outfits. Ironically, it lacks functional coordination with those organisations from where its personnel come. It is largely reminiscent of the pre-9/11 America where intelligence agencies happily lived within respective walled gardens. The consequence was disastrous and interagency coordination is now central to the US national security blueprint.
Resource-constrained Bangladesh cannot afford to repeat the resourceful America's mistake. The archipelago of extrapolating mobile users' data should be exclusive to NTMC while other security agencies will have unfettered access to it. The non-security outfits like health, transport, local government, social welfare, etc. will receive customised data according to respective need. But the big data processing of more than 166 million mobile connections should be off-limits for individuals or entities lacking required security clearance. This is the reality in the context of Bangladesh.
Four years ago, Bill Gates warned about Covid-19 without naming it. The global leaders chose to ignore him. Now the Dutch King, Austrian Chancellor and "countless ministers from all kinds of countries" are frantically calling a leading German ventilator manufacturer. The Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg had already shouted at all of them six months ago. The politicians predictably remain unashamed.
Covid-19 is not the last pandemic virus. And nobody knows when the next one will attack, followed by another. Therefore, big data analytics using live mobile phone connections must not be a one-off affair in Bangladesh. It should be captured in our national security policy with paramount importance. That's why, the mobile big data should be processed only by the individuals having required security clearance. Competent data scientists with global experience reside in Bangladesh. Finding and engaging them is up to the government's political goodwill.
Abu Saeed Khan is Senior Policy Fellow at LIRNEasia.