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12 May 2020 | Story Andre Damons | Photo Pexels

A data scientist and research coordinator at the University of the Free State (UFS), in collaboration with his supervisor at the University of Pretoria (UP), is at the forefront of the fight against the Covid-19 virus with accurate data and analysis.
Herkulaas Combrink of the Centre for Teaching and Learning at the UFS and PhD candidate in Computer Science at the UP, said accurate data is important to prevent widespread panic and sensationalism during a global disaster such as the current pandemic. This information helps people to make informed decisions and to reduce their exposure to the threat of the virus.

Assisting decision-makers

“I, along with colleagues from the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the USA, the provincial office of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, provincial clinicians, and the Free State Department of Health led by Dr David Motau, have been able to progress significantly in terms of evidence-based tools to assist provincial and national decision-makers during these turbulent times.”
“It does come at a cost, though, in that we have worked continuously since the lockdown, dedicating all our time and efforts to the department from all over to ensure that we are not part of some of the global statistics we have seen,” said Combrink. 

A paper written together with his supervisor, Dr Vukosi Marivate, has also been accepted by the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET)-accredited Data Science Journal.  This paper is related to a framework for sharing public data to the public in a way that is useful, usable, and understandable. 

Ongoing projects

Combrink said it is hard to name all those who are/were involved in the great work done by the Free State Department of Health, but some of them include Dr Elizabeth Reji (Head of Department, Family Medicine), Dr Collin Noel (surgeon, senior lecturer at the UFS), Dr Sammy Mokoena (community health registrar, UFS), Dr Ming-Han Motloung (public health medicine specialist, senior lecturer, UFS), Dr Perpetual Chikobvu (Director: Information Management at the Department of Health, affiliated lecturer at the UFS), as well as Alfred Deacon (lecturer at the UFS), who have worked at some point during this short space of time on one of the many projects. 

Some of the projects include the following:

• A provincial database for screening and monitoring.
• A data pipeline and assembly of hospital information flow, liaised with the NICD, Vodacom, and the different district managers to ensure that the pipeline occurs in a timely manner.
• Digitised paper-based capturing tools for rapid data capturing and processing.
• Incorporated state-of-the-art visualisation tools to action data into useful information for decision-makers in certain areas.
• Provided both provincial and national projections, stress testing different scenarios using a variety of statistical, computational, and/or machine-learning approaches to add to the already existing projections of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).
• Training healthcare professionals in the field to apply these tools within their own districts.
No easy task

“These aforementioned feats were by no means easy and are not completed yet, but we are getting there. In the foreseeable future, I will be working closely with national and international researchers to deploy a tool for hospital managers in the Free State that will assist them when we move from level 5 to any level below.”

“In addition to this, I am constantly providing support to the Free State Department of Health regarding any analysis required for decision-making purposes. The teams we work in comprise highly competent individuals with a passion for solving problems from multidisciplinary perspectives,” according to Combrink.

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