Strength in numbers: A more open approach to tracking the virus in Japan

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Like many foreign residents of Japan during the early days of the country’s COVID-19 outbreak, Shane Reustle and Jiahui Zhou recall poring over websites run by the health ministry and local municipalities to try to get a clear picture of how infections were spreading in the world’s third-largest economy.

But their attempts to quickly grasp the situation were — and sometimes still are — hampered by infrequent site updates, a shortage of multilingual information and overly granular statistics.

“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.”

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

In a nation where bureaucracy is slow to go digital, the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a resurgence of what is known as civic-tech culture, in which citizens use their information-technology skills to supplement government services.

The key people behind a virus tracking site — (from left) Shane Reustle, Jiahui Zhou and Alastair Tse — are contributing their time on a volunteer basis. | MARK THOMPSON
The key people behind a virus tracking site — (from left) Shane Reustle, Jiahui Zhou and Alastair Tse — are contributing their time on a volunteer basis. | MARK THOMPSON

The movement echoes what occurred in the aftermath of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdowns that ravaged the Tohoku region in 2011. In developments similar to those seen nine years ago, tech-savvy individuals are using their expertise to analyze the official data and make it more accessible to the public.

Deja vu

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

Among such initiatives was Safecast, which was established as a nonprofit organization that 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 and 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.”

Engineer Yasuto Furukawa was also involved in a civic tech project following the March 11 disaster: an open-source, information-gathering site launched only hours after the quake struck the Tohoku region. Furukawa believes the COVID-19 pandemic is heralding an even bigger need for civic tech than events nine years ago.

“Back in 2011, the demand for civic tech wasn’t as widespread as it is now, because the movement at the time didn’t gather much traction in western Japan,” which was relatively unaffected by the disaster, he said.

But this time, the virus threat is nationwide and the battle is shaping up to be a much longer haul than initially anticipated.

“What is nasty about the COVID-19 crisis is that, unlike the 2011 (quake and tsunami), we just don’t have a clue as to when we might see light at the end of the tunnel.”

Revolutionary moment

What is also different about the current virus response is that it is not limited to civic-minded volunteers.

Last month, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government surprised many by launching a cutting-edge website — — focused on informing the public about the novel coronavirus. Developed by Tokyo-based group Code for Japan, the stopcovid19 site features cards visualizing key data points, such as the daily tally of coronavirus cases and reductions in metropolitan subway usage.

The TMG site’s usage of Creative Commons licensing, an alternative form of copyright that enables a more flexible distribution of content, and GitHub, an open-source development platform, was particularly radical for a government entity as it opened up the code and the data for other collaborators to build upon.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government surprised many by launching a cutting-edge website — — focused on informing the public about the novel coronavirus. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government surprised many by launching a cutting-edge website — — focused on informing the public about the novel coronavirus. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

That has inspired developers and site designers nationwide to adopt the TMG template in order to report on their own locations. To date, 57 spinoffs sites, covering 45 prefectures in Japan, have emerged. Furukawa has spearheaded a version of the site for the Hokkaido region.

For the Tokyo government, the site’s proliferation lends credence to its yearslong push for open data — the concept that government data is a “public asset” that anyone should be able to access, use and republish.

Open data is still an alien concept in many divisions of Japanese bureaucracy, which is largely dependent on paperwork and outmoded technology.

“I would say the site was pretty revolutionary in Japan,” said Motohiko Tokuriki, a prominent blogger and author of IT-related books.

“While many public offices here still rely on paper-based distribution of information, such as via fax, and a low-tech approach to collecting data, Tokyo has been following the global trend of open data. Its efforts have paid off with the realization of this website.”

Sayoko Shimoyama, an adviser for Code for Japan who played a central role in designing the TMG site, said simplicity was its key concept.

“One of the strongest requests made by the TMG was to create a site that conveys objective facts with no room for interpretation,” she said.

“The aim was for the website to help alleviate fear among the public, by leading people toward factual data and away from the chaos of conflicting information, misinformation and fear-mongering flying around.”

‘Everybody’s thing’

Simplicity and accessibility are also key concepts for Zhou and Reustle. Available in English and Japanese, is open source, meaning anyone can see, modify and distribute its code.

“I think one of the big differences that the site does have compared to the ministry of health is that we have a lot less numbers, and it’s less confusing to know what categories of things are,” said Tokyo-based software engineer Alastair Tse, a key site collaborator. “It’s a much more simple view of where we are.”

Zhou, Reustle and Tse are involved in the project on a volunteer basis. They said it takes about one to three hours per day to scour government websites and news reports for the latest updates and verify and double-check figures, as well as answer questions and review suggestions from contributors around the world. (Disclosure: Japan Times staff have also been a part of the data-collection process.)

A chart from shows the upward trend of confirmed cases in the virus outbreak. | COURTESY OF COVID19JAPAN.COM
A chart from shows the upward trend of confirmed cases in the virus outbreak. | COURTESY OF COVID19JAPAN.COM

But for Reustle, the project’s collaborative nature makes it a rewarding experience.

“Now it’s open, anybody can come in and fix things and work on things, so it’s more like you keep wanting to devote (your time) because it’s everybody’s thing,” Reustle said.

The open source project has now gone beyond Japan, he said, even prompting overseas projects to build off their site’s code.

Zhou echoes Reustle’s sentiment.

“This site is very community-driven,” she said. “You see so many people have been following that and have been making good use of these (pieces of) information. That’s a very happy result from this website,” she said.

Silver lining

While many might agree that Japan has done an reasonable job of reporting confirmed cases, the scarcity of machine-readable data, coupled with the lack of a consistent format, definitely isn’t making it easy for that information to be collated.

“Japan, unfortunately, has a very bad reputation of putting content in images, and Google cannot translate that text automatically,” Reustle pointed out.

“There’s a lot of kanji in these images, and if I don’t understand the kanji, I can’t read what this information is telling me, and I can’t use Google Translate to change that … As someone who’s trying to stay up to date, that’s a big problem.”

The pandemic has highlighted the need not only for accessible data but also, some say, more aggressive use of information technology.

A screenshot of the process to sign up for a survey in a recent collaboration between Japan's health ministry and the LINE messaging app.
A screenshot of the process to sign up for a survey in a recent collaboration between Japan’s health ministry and the LINE messaging app.

Admittedly, the health ministry did take the bold step of conducting a nationwide coronavirus survey last month using the popular LINE app. The poll, which gathered info from roughly 24 million respondents, was a large-scale attempt to gauge public awareness of the virus.

But elsewhere in Asia technological prowess has been on prominent display as countries have tapped big data, artificial intelligence and informational transparency to track the virus.

“If you look at Singapore, and I would say even Taiwan, (and) how advanced their information technology architecture is … they’re able to distribute masks really effectively, they’re able to quell rumors really effectively through the use of IT,” Tse said.

“I think this has not happened in Japan on that scale.”

Blogger Tokuriki attributes municipalities’ low-tech ways and reservations about sharing information to a mindset from the preinternet age, that government information should only be parceled out in certain amounts and only at certain times — hence the tendency to disseminate only carefully edited documents via fax or PDF downloads.

But now that the virus crisis has forced many firms to adopt telework and universities to shift classes online, Tokuriki says the pandemic is presenting a now-or-never opportunity for Japan to accelerate a major digital shift.

“I hear some companies are still banning the use of tools such as Zoom and social media due to security concerns,” he said. “But now is really the chance for Japan to take a bold step toward going truly digital.”

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