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The 'nameless, faceless' group giving you covid-19 updates in India

The website has become a reliable resource for internet users to update themselves on the pandemic data in India. But who is running it?

A screengrab of the website.
A screengrab of the website.

The Twitter handle @covid19indiaorg has 84,000 followers. As Twitter follower counts go, this isn’t by itself a remarkable number—many minor celebrities have more—but when you consider that the handle was only created in March 2020 and there are no celebrities in sight, it becomes significant.

From the time it was founded in mid-March, the website has gained solid reputation as a go-to resource for timely and accurate state-wise updates on the spread of the pandemic in India, which explains the follower count.If you search ‘covid 19 tracker India’ on Google, the website is the second result after a sponsored link to the official website—and this volunteer-driven, not-for-profit initiative is the more user-friendly tracker of the two.

Why numbers matter

As we battle covid-19, access to reliable data presented clearly and lucidly is crucial, not just for policymakers and researchers but for ordinary Indians to gauge trends, see how much at risk they are in their current geography, check the risk exposure for family and friends around the country, and to combat fake news. The online tracker provides this data in several layers.

A smartly designed overview on the homepage tells the user the most important numbers at a glance: the total number of confirmed covid-19 cases in India, the total number of active cases, and the numbers of recovered and deceased patients. A state-wise breakup of numbers of cases follows, along with a map that provides visual representation of the data. Next, a simple graphical representation of ‘spread trends’ follows, plotting the increase in the number of cases from around 13 March.

The team behind the website is reluctant to talk about itself or individual members. They are also very sure that they want to remain anonymous. “We would like to remain faceless and nameless for now," the team replies in answer to the ‘who are you?’ question among others emailed by Mint, adding that “the reason is because it does not help the cause in any way. It does not make things better if people knew who we were." How did it all start? “It started with a few folks coming together to stop feeling helpless and bring about a small change," says the spokesperson/s on email.

Come together

They confirm that the operation is completely volunteer-driven, both in terms of coding and data collation, with a core admin team that coordinates the effort. “The code is completely open-source and is on GitHub, so anyone wanting to contribute from the coding perspective can contribute there. For data operations, we have a Telegram group where people can reach out to the admins. Sometimes the admins call for volunteers when there is a need for volunteer rotation," they explain.

There are several groups managing the tracker now, among them a data operations team that collects raw data from various sources, a front-end development team managing the website's user interface and a back-end team keeping the database clean, a social team which handles the Twitter feed and even a 'mindfulness team' that volunteers can reach out to if they feel stressed and overwhelmed.

The group curates and verifies the data coming in from various sources, cross-checking the numbers against different, mostly government and a few non-government resources: websites of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) and the Indian Council for Medical Research (COVID-19), the National Disaster Management Authority and updates by various state governments on their individual websites and Twitter handles.

On their FAQs page, they explain why their positive count is sometimes higher than the data reflected on the MoHFW data: “MoHFW updates the data at a scheduled time. However, we update them based on state press bulletins, official (CM, Health Minister) handles, PIB, Press Trust of India, ANI reports. These are generally more recent."

Paying attention to the depth of data and parsing it to understand the pandemic is important to the group. On 16 April, they introduced several new features on the website: a search function by state or city; a ‘Deep Dive’ section which provides district-wise data for every state and, a day later, a counter for nationwide test numbers. The website now also provides information on essential services, including phone numbers of testing labs, helpline numbers, contacts of NGOs helping the underprivileged and mental health resources.

There are no plans to monetize the website as of now. “That'll never happen. We want to stay away from the financial aspect :)," writes the spokesperson. “The reason we are doing this is because there's a need to understand the spread (of covid-19) for it to be stopped. There are a lot of people who can work on this data and use it to make policies that can avert/reduce future/current spreads. And none of us are immune from this. Today we are safe, but it can be us tomorrow, or our loved ones. The only way to keep society safe is to bring awareness by making all the data available."

There are no plans for a “pivot" either; in response to a question about whether they see a future for the website once the pandemic ceases to be a threat, they say: “We haven't thought so much into the future. We live a day at a time."

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