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Doing more than crunching numbers: dealing with data that saves lives

By Valentino Ndaba 

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Data and medical scientist, Herkulaas Combrink, plays a
pivotal part in curbing the spread of the coronavirus in
South Africa through big data analysis.
Photo: Anja Aucamp

Now more than ever, the public relies on good, reliable information and data to stay updated on the Coronavirus  (COVID-19). Data scientists are using tools to figure out infection hotspots – a method that is paramount to curbing the spread of the disease. 

Herkulaas Combrink, Officer in the Centre for Teaching and Learning, is a data and medical scientist who has years of experience as a research coordinator at the University of the Free State (UFS), with an emphasis on data management, data science, and analytics. Combrink was seconded to the Free State Department of Health (FSDoH) on a provincial level since the lockdown began. His work involves clinical surveillance, mapping, modelling, as well as analytics.

What does this secondment entail?

“I provide analytics to the different decision-makers and for targeted interventions from the clinical teams on a daily basis. During my time at the FSDoH, I have assisted in building systems, training staff, providing various reports, collaborating with other scientists, presenting reports to the MEC, Premier, Head of Department (HOD), Deputy Director General (DDG), Deputy Director, Minister of Health, and Deputy President,” he explains his role.

Protecting the province from a pandemic

Combrink is tasked with constantly engaging multiple sectors to provide evidence on the infection rates, and to supply supporting data to ensure that the country responds accurately to the pandemic. This big data analysis informs calls to action that capitalises on each province’s strong points, which are used to best prepare for the future. Without big data, we cannot project patterns and avoid a catastrophe.

“My specific role is to provide support to the clinical surveillance unit, as well as add to the provincial analytics related to COVID-19. Collectively, we assisted with various COVID-19 responses, and continue to assist with the provincial response as much as possible,” he says. Combrink forms part of a large, committed, and dedicated COVID-19 response team in the Free State, led by the DDG, Dr Marcus Molokomme, and the HOD, Dr David Motau.

Being a data scientist during a pandemic

In his role, Combrink is heavily involved in three areas, namely clinical surveillance support in the form of data science and analytics, ICT support, and information dissemination. “Data science analytics refers to the data I work with, transform, and turn into information for various sectors. On a daily basis, I receive data from various sources in the province, and transform the data into information by using algorithms, visualisation tools, and computational models,” he explains.

The data is then evaluated and validated. After that, the information is sent to relevant people so that they can use it for rapid decision-making, depending on the stakeholder. Combrink further describes his daily routine: “Once I have completed this, I further work on UFSand led by various stakeholders.”

Special moments: Putting people first 

For Combrink, what has been most special about working with the FSDoH, is the team. “We put people first, care about the province, and assist where possible. The people I work with are very adaptable. Furthermore, there are people from different backgrounds working together on various aspects of the COVID-19 response, making this a dynamic, multidisciplinary, and high-functioning team.”

Working together continues to prove valuable. Combrink cites supporting one another as a key ingredient in bringing out the best in the people from his team. He says skills are shared and people learn from each other. Sharing a common goal and having passion as a core value is what makes his experience all the more special.

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