Like any other software developer, Álvaro Justen used to spend most of his waking hours in front of a screen, moving around in his chair, while writing code, working with databases, and processing spreadsheets. But since the first Covid-19 cases sprouted in his native Brazil, Justen’s routine changed significantly. He now works full time, without pay, on what was once a small side project that has become the comprehensive source for measurements of the pandemic’s impact in his country.
@turicas, as colleagues and Twitter followers know Justen, founded his nonprofit Brasil.IO in 2018 as an initiative to make public data in Brazil more accessible. Now, he is focusing on information — or lack thereof — about the novel coronavirus in the country, one of the pandemic’s epicenters.
“If I’m awake, I’m probably working on the site. On Saturdays, Sundays, holidays,” he told Rest of World. He started his site by publishing lists — candidates for public office or business owners in the country — in a user-friendly format.
Currently, the site’s Covid-19 series features an independent daily monitor of cases with breakdowns by state and city. More than 40 volunteer developers and data enthusiasts work on the project, gathering updates, identifying patterns, and creating datasets.
Collecting data can be a difficult, manual task. The volunteers work to cover more than 5,000 Brazilian cities. “Sometimes, data is only available in internal systems, and we have to request it,” Justen explained. “Or the data is available, but not in an easy format to work with.” The challenge is to turn these massive tranches of information — which can come in large spreadsheets or loose PDFs — into lighter files or user-friendly tables and graphics.
By 2018, data transparency had come a long way in Brazil. Since the military rule ended in 1985, the country has witnessed breakthroughs like the 2011 approval of the Access to Information Law, akin to the U.S. Freedom of Information Act.
But experts, like Fernanda Campagnucci, executive director of Open Knowledge Brasil, say that data transparency is not a priority for the Bolsonaro administration. Instead, it seems to prefer an unspoken policy to conceal, question, or take down any data that doesn’t agree with its narrative. “A posture toward restraining access [to information] is gaining ground, which was not typical of Brazil,” she told Rest of World.
These efforts began last year. In April 2019, the Bolsonaro administration took down the Brazilian Observatory on Drug Information’s website, which showed the number of illicit drug use among the population. Later, in August, the director of the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research was fired after coming under attack for showing that Amazon deforestation increased 68% in the first two weeks of July when compared to the same time period in the previous year. Earlier in the year, the government cut the national census’ budget, which led to a proposal to reduce population survey questions by almost a third.
The coronavirus pandemic threw this informal policy out in the open. Addressing this gap became a “matter of survival,” according to Justen. He grew skeptical of the numbers from the Brazilian government, once he noticed its site going offline for a few hours and coming back up with incomplete datasets. The site also took about two months to publish breakdowns by city.
Justen’s suspicions turned out to be right. As the number of Covid-19 infections grew exponentially, the official government website for Covid-19 statistics went offline on June 5, 2020. When a new version went live, it featured only numbers from the past 24 hours, and the cumulative data were gone. Three days later, the ministry was forced to restore the website on the orders of the Supreme Court.
As news of the Covid-19 data blackout spread, the number of unique daily visitors to Brasil.IO skyrocketed from 4,000 to 30,000. Meanwhile, tensions at the Ministry of Health boiled over: Disagreements with Bolsonaro had led two previous ministers to leave their posts; the president, in turn, appointed an army general as interim minister. The government also pushed back its daily Covid-19 press briefing from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. hush-hush press releases that led with the numbers of recovered patients, which was widely suggested to be an attempt to stop them from being featured in prime-time news broadcasts and print newspapers.
As drama embroiled the executive branch, independent data collectors continued their work. They did so using an information network that integrates Brazil’s universal healthcare system with its epidemiological surveillance department. When doctors on the ground identify a case from a list of diseases, including Covid-19, they report it to a monitor at the Ministry of Health. Each state then consolidates the data and publishes daily epidemiological bulletins that are open to the public. “If states stopped doing that, an initiative like Brasil.IO’s Covid-19 project would not be able to exist,” Campagnucci said.
When operating as intended, this integrated system responds quickly to local- and federal-level health emergencies. It was crucial during the 2015 Zika epidemic, when it uncovered the initial surge in cases of microcephaly, a condition in which a baby is born with a smaller head than normal. That allowed researchers in Brazil to identify, early on, the link between Zika infection and microcephaly among newborns. “Microcephaly was only the tip of the iceberg. And the response to it was praiseworthy,” said Wayner Vieira, a Brazilian epidemiologist.
While developing Brasil.IO, Justen and his team incorporated this integrated system into their work. Groups of volunteers covered specific states, with the help of local health departments. Every day, a bot sends the volunteers updates. Volunteers work separately to upload the most recent information into Brasil.IO’s platform. If their numbers don’t match, the system sends out an alert. In a country like Brazil, such differences in official statistics are relatively common. States publish epidemiological bulletins at different times of the day or even use different methodologies. “Sometimes [local governments] publish a PDF file or an image, or the numbers are part of a press release,” Justen told Rest of World. “Automatizing this process is very hard.”
Alarmed by the Covid-19 data blackout, the Brasil.IO team posted its consolidated reports on Twitter as an alternative to the federal bulletins. Its first one came out on June 6, immediately after the blackout, when it was still unclear whether the federal government would restore access to the cumulative data gathered for Covid-19 thus far. “Our work is to advocate for governments to open data because this is their responsibility. Independent initiatives [like Brasil.IO] emerge only because the government fails to do so,” Campagnucci said.
With the help of bots and dozens of volunteers, as of July 11, Brasil.IO has published 36 bulletins so far. They have joined other organizations’ calls for better transparency.
As the number of Covid-19 cases in Brazil continues to rise — as of July 8, it was over 1,700,000 people — and even president Bolsonaro tested positive for Covid-19, independent data collectors have a long way to go. Brasil.IO continues to build datasets and now plans to research the pandemic’s economic impact in the country. “A lot of the available information still cannot be easily managed by laypeople, unless they are experts in data analysis,” Justen said. “In this case, it is as if the data was not available at all.”