A recent outbreak of the new coronavirus, also known as COVID-19 or SARS-CoV-2 had caused panic around the world. With higher connectivity between people facilitated by the internet, sharing unverified fake news on social media has worsen the situation. The need for reliable information from credible sources is eminent, as it could help people to take sufficient precautionary measures to protect themselves and their loved ones.
Realizing the need for reliable information, a team of over 2500 volunteers across the globe comprising of full stack developers, medical professionals, researchers, data scientists and more came that came together for a community-based, social innovation project. Led by Dr. Lau Cher Han, the CoronaTracker website was born. This website is the only independent website that is recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO).
The Nagaoka Review team was fortunate to have had the opportunity to interview Assistant Professor Dr. Fairoza Amira binti Hamzah who was appointed the Lead Researcher of the CoronaTracker team and an Alumnus of the Nagaoka University of Technology (NUT) to share more about her experience working with the team, her inspiration and the future of AI.
NR: Thank you for your time. Dr. Fairoza, to be interviewed by the Nagaoka Review Team. Could you tell us about yourself and your affiliation with the Nagaoka University of Technology (NUT)?
FA: My name is Fairoza Amira binti Hamzah, and I am from Malaysia. Currently I am an Assistant Professor at The Kyoto College of Graduate Studies for Informatics in Kyoto, Japan. I like traveling to various parts of the world, as well as to join various online community works, such as the CoronaTracker.
I came to the Nagaoka University of Technology (NUT) under a twinning program called the Japanese Associate Degree under the MARA Education Foundation (YPM) in Malaysia, and I started my 3rd year undergraduate study in Electrical, Electronics and Information Engineering Department. From there, I joined the Image Information System Research Lab under the supervision of Professor Masahiro Iwahashi. I continued pursuing the Master and Ph.D program in NUT which summed up the total of my 7 years studying in NUT.
When I first joined my research lab, we had many international students from countries such as Vietnam, Thailand, East Timor and many more. In my final year of my Master program, my friends invited me to join the NUTIESC under Professor Mikami, and I was appointed the Secretary and later, as the President of the council. There, I developed my leadership skills. My research, writing, presentation and experimentation skills were developed when I was in the lab.
I would say that my research lab, my supervisor and NUT International Exchange Student Council shaped me to be who I am today.
NR: Do tell us about your involvement with the CoronaTracker Website.
FA: The CoronaTracker website was established on the 25th January 2020 when the Chinese government revealed the virus to the world, as tens of thousand cases spiked in China. I encountered a post on Facebook by Dr. Cher Han Lau in one of the Facebook groups I joined. Initially, my plan of joining these groups was to have a look at the current situation of data science in Malaysia. I have been in Japan for too long, so this is one good way of keeping myself updated. Also, I wanted to do my part in fighting the virus.
In our second Zoom meeting, Dr. Lau appointed me as the Lead Researcher and that was when my journey began.
We launched the website on the 27th January 2020 and had our first research meeting on the 7th February 2020. As I have joined many international communities and I have been for many international conferences, I really liked being surrounded by the community and help the community to grow. Besides CoronaTracker, I am also an ambassador for Women in AI (previously in Japan and now, in Malaysia).
I am really proud of being a part of the CoronaTracker team. Our core members executed everything brilliantly. It was the Lunar New Year holidays in Malaysia, but everyone burned the midnight oil to finish the website in 2 days. Dr. Lau is an experienced full stack engineer and data scientist, along with Hafeez, the data scientist. Then, we had Wei Seng Tan as the front-end engineer that helped with the designing and coding of the website. Dominic and I were put in charge of research activities. Marcus was the head of products and Ummi Hasanah as our Chief of PR. It was especially difficult to work remotely with people from all around the world. We had to understand everyone’s culture and very importantly, time zone. Especially for team members with large time zone gap with us.
My previous experience working on various online communities such as Women in AI and Udacity Scholars helped me a lot with keeping everything in check. We use Zoom, Trello, Slack, GitHub and Telegram for our main working and communication tool.
NR: We have also read that you have written a research paper regarding the CoronaTracker. Tell us more about it.
FA: The CoronaTracker team members have also written a paper entitled CoronaTracker: COVID-19 Outbreak Data Analysis and Prediction that was published on the 19th March 2020 and was posted in the Bulletin of World Health Organization and was also mentioned by credible sources such as Bernama , TV3, NTV7, AWANI and Berita Harian.
This paper was my second paper involving Artificial Intelligence and the first in Natural Language Processing (NLP) field, so it was an extremely new to me. I have worked with NLP when I did my Udacity Deep Learning Nanodegree and never thought I was going to write a paper in this field.
Our paper consisted of 3 parts. The introduction of CoronaTracker and how we visualize and scrape the data, the SEIR modelling for this outbreak prediction, and the sentiment analysis on the news of this outbreak where we discussed about the political and economic aspect. In short, this paper is a collaboration of multinational industry experts and academic researchers from various fields such as data science, medicine and political science. It was a good experience writing a paper with 13 authors and 20 people in the team. Everything was done remotely and after a month and half of experimenting and writing, we managed to submit the paper.
NR: What do you think of the importance of Social Innovation?
FA: Social Innovation is no stranger to our team. And I believe it is an important aspect, as it is a way for us to contribute back to the society. Right now, it’s the world of data and AI. We believe data science and collaboration could be a part of the solution to the COVID-19 threat.
The government is a big player in this effort as they have lots of data on the patients. And we believe that we could help manage the data wisely by creating an easy-to-understand visual data to create awareness to the people. Besides that, data can also be used in predicting the future of outbreaks similar to this, thus helping governments around the world to understand how to craft a policy to fight this outbreak.
I envision that Big Data and AI will help create a better life for human beings if it is used wisely and ethically. Information should be democratized so people could easily have access to it.
NR: How would you sum up your experience with the CoronaTracker project? And what essential skills would you say are key to your success
FA: The entire experience was worth the time and effort. And if I had to pick 3 essential skills that made CoronaTracker possible, it would have been Patience, Understanding as well as Responsibility.
I hope more people would be more confident to join social innovation causes. We all have the power to bring about changes in the world, no matter how small the effort.