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  • Oscar ONeill

How Ontario could benefit from having the latest COVID-19 numbers

Updated: Apr 30

You can see the Ontario COVID-19 dashboard I created here.


And here you can see a video of the automated scraping in action.


COVID-19 is still around and we are still social distancing in order to protect the more vulnerable.


My grandad is in a long-term care home in Ireland and it was found that there was a suspected case of COVID-19 in his home. He hasn't caught the virus. His home is in lockdown, and it will continue to be this way until it is safe to open up again. Thankfully, the home was shut down in time and there have been no more suspected cases.

Unfortunately my family and I still can't see him face to face. Both he and I are wondering when social distancing will come to an end.


Timeliness of responding to a possible COVID-19 case is of utmost importance to people around the world. The faster we can gather information about the virus, the sooner we can understand the situation and make decisions that can save lives.


Since the decision to open the province is not made at a federal level but at the provincial level, Ontario politicians could make better decisions about when to safely release the social distancing measures if they had the latest and most accurate data. 

My grandfather and I enjoying the sun in Ireland

I've created a computer program that takes data from the websites of the 34 Public Health Units (PHUs) in Ontario every hour

This computer program is valuable because the official Ontario case numbers can be delayed by 24 - 48 hours

As it is right now (6:43pm on April 28th), Ontario is officially reporting 15,381 confirmed cases of COVID-19. However this number is actually lower than the number of cases reported by PHUs, which are reporting 16,331 confirmed cases. The official count of deaths vs. the PHU count of deaths is also different, but only off by about 50 or so.


The PHUs are reporting about 1,000 more cases than the Government of Ontario

This is a significant difference. People that are in charge of organizing the care of vulnerable people could be operating on stale information.


I'm not the first one to come to the conclusion that the Government is reporting delayed information. Other news agencies have already written about it. About a month ago, Kayla Goodfield from CTV News reported that "the number of COVID-19 deaths confirmed by local public health units is nearly double what Ontario was reporting". [1]


However, when questioned about the difference in counts, government officials were unsure of why their numbers were so different from the numbers reported by the Public Health Units. 


Recently a doctor criticized the World Health Organization (WHO) by saying that they made a mistake by delaying their signal of pandemic by 7 days [6]. In a pandemic, every minute counts. Based on his argument, we could also assume that a  24 hour period delay in reporting could have deadly consequences.


Let's take a look at the ways that the Government of Ontario collects its data to see why the officially reported figured are consistently lower than the PHUs


Reason #1: Ontario takes its case counts from a province wide computer system but it takes the PHUs a lot of time to update it

Each Public Health Unit uses its own internal software to manage its area of operation. But that software isn't connected to other PHU. Instead, there is a province wide system called the integrated Public Health Information System (or iPHIS) that each PHU must add its cases to.


Adding data to this system is manual and time consuming, and PHUs are often somewhat behind on entering data because of this.


Toronto Public Health has given up on the system because it is too cumbersome and slow [3]

Slow data entry and the over-complicated nature of the iPHIS software means that PHUs are lagging behind on entering critically important data as it comes up. So much so that some PHUs (like Toronto Public Health) have started to use other software to handle their COVID-19 cases.


Reason #2: Ontario only updates its official numbers once a day

Furthermore, Ontario only reports on the cases that are stored in iPHIS once a day. But the Health Units are updating iPHIS, in addition to their own website multiple times throughout the day. So there is a 24-48 hour delay in reporting because of this.

Public Health Units already have so much to do, taking time to update another database is just more work

We could use software automation to augment the existing Ontario reporting processes

Question: Is it possible to have more accurate and timely data so that we can make the best decision possible?


Answer: Yes. Software called "Robotic Process Automation" (RPA) can help us get the most up to date numbers from the PHUs every hour of the day

To solve this problem of delayed reporting, I went ahead and put my programming skills to work. My business, DigitalStaff, creates software that can automate digital tasks that would normally require a person sitting at a computer. These automations are really amazing. Usually I build custom automations for businesses to automate their internal processes, but during this pandemic I wanted to give back to the community. 


So I programmed computer software that goes to the website of each of the 34 Public Health Units and gathers the data every hour on the hour, saves it to a database, does some math, and then updates a live COVID-19 in Ontario dashboard. Take a look at the above video to see the software in action.


The numbers pulled by my automated software are the most up to date Public Health Unit COVID-19 counts in Ontario and this whole process is fully automatic

Because the Ontario Government says: "In the event of a discrepancy between iPHIS cases and cases publicly reported by PHUs, data reported by PHUs should be considered the most up to date." [4] 


Then we could say that the dashboard I've put together with the help of my Robotic Process Automation (RPA) software contains the most up to date counts of COVID-19 in Ontario.


Now there is a live dashboard, that the Ontario Government, Public Health Ontario, PHUs, CBC, and the general public can use to see the latest COVID-19 figures of their province. And all of this data is updated without a single button needing to be pressed. 

Applying RPA to solve problems in Ontario

Now that you've seen how this software automation can make a difference, we could start to put it to use in other areas. 


It's possible that we could augment iPHIS with RPA, and make it even more simple and streamlined to use, without having to move to an entirely new system

The big issue with iPHIS (remember that province wide database) is that it is time-consuming and cumbersome to use and update. It's possible that we could use Robotic Process Automation (RPA) to make it easier for each Public Health Unit to update the database.

Perhaps we could connect the PHUs software to iPHIS, so that cases, contact tracing details, notes and other items of interest could automatically be transferred. At the moment, the PHUs need to enter data twice. Data is entered once into their own software, and then once again into iPHIS. With RPA, we could make it a single step.

By making iPHIS easier to use for PHUs across Ontario, we could save hundreds or thousands of hours and headaches. It would also allow for each PHU to be as up-to-date as possible, and without needing any extra manpower to handle the data entry. We don't need to make any changes to iPHIS, but rather, we could add on new features and simple user interfaces using Robotic Process Automation (RPA) that would make iPHIS easier to work with.

Improving iPHIS with RPA can be more cost effective than moving to an entirely new province wide case tracking system

Ontario has been using iPHIS for more than 15 years. [5] Maybe we could get another couple of years out of this software by improving it in key areas. This could save millions of dollars, as it is a huge investment of time and money to move to a province wide system. However, it may just be time to move to a new cloud focused software like what Toronto Public Health is using.


The Government of Ontario could use RPA to update its official COVID-19 case counts from iPHIS every hour

If we used Robotic Process Automation (RPA) to update Ontario's official COVID-19 case counts from iPHIS every hour, we could have the latest data available to us all the time. I'm not sure why Ontario is releasing the stats only once every 24 hours, but I am sure the reason is that the work is too time consuming for a person to do every single hour.


Since RPA could allow for the updating of the official case counts to occur automatically, the amount of work required isn't as important. We can just have a computer update the official counts for us.

These are just a couple of ideas that I've had about where we could put RPA to work for Ontario. I am sure there are countless other areas that we could augment with this kind of technology. 

More up-to-date data could mean we get back to normal sooner

All of this automation is to help the people of Ontario live a better life

In conclusion, the delayed reporting on the COVID-19 situation in Ontario is not good for the people of Ontario. When every minute counts, it's important that we have access to the latest numbers so that the right people can make decisions about where to allocate critical resources like N95 masks, ventilators, and other protective equipment. 


If we were to put Robotic Process Automation (RPA) software to work for the people of Ontario, it is possible that we could save more lives of vulnerable people like my grandfather.


Furthermore, politicians in Ontario would be able to make better decisions about when to lessen social distancing. The sooner we can safely reduce social distancing measures, the sooner we can get back to a sense of normalcy. And the sooner I can go see my grandad in person.


Thank you for your time and interest, if you have any questions at all, please feel free to reach out to me directly.


Oscar ONeill

oscar@digitalstaff.ca

(844) 255-0840



Sources

[1] https://toronto.ctvnews.ca/mobile/number-of-covid-19-deaths-confirmed-by-local-public-health-units-is-nearly-double-what-ontario-is-reporting-1.4877627


[2]  https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/covid19-modelling-projections-1.5527365


[3]  https://www.cp24.com/news/toronto-ditches-province-s-health-information-system-develops-more-modern-tool-to-track-covid-19-data-1.4899578


[4]  https://www.ontario.ca/page/2019-novel-coronavirus#section-0


[5]  http://www.simcoemuskokahealthstats.org/resources/data-sources/iphis


[6] https://www.cbc.ca/radio/thesundayedition/the-sunday-edition-for-april-26-2020-1.5536429/who-should-never-again-have-authority-over-a-pandemic-says-law-and-public-health-professor-1.5540895