The most comprehensive map of COVID-19 in Hawaii is published not by the state health department, but by a local guy who says he’s a nerd frustrated by a lack of transparency from the government.

“It’s something the Department of Health should be doing,” said Ryan Ozawa, a communications director for a real estate tech company who also runs the community chat group Hawaii Slack, which hosts the maps.

But since DOH isn’t, data geeks like him in the community are filling in the void, he said.

Ozawa said he started out early in the pandemic by overlaying ZIP code boundaries over the state’s basic county-level COVID-19 case data, back before the state began publishing its own ZIP code maps on what is now its old data dashboard. And now that it is publishing them, it keeps changing the parameters of the data, which he says has been a source of great frustration.

“It hasn’t gotten better,” he said. “It’s gotten worse.”

He’s also dabbled in other projects, including a registry of where to buy face masks before they were widely available in retail stores. But perhaps what’s gained the most interest is the COVID-19 clusters map, which shows the locations of known outbreaks in Hawaii based on crowdsourced information.

The data Ozawa has compiled is now being used by researchers to help study and develop response plans to the virus, including for a mathematical model for the University of Hawaii and a project with the National Disaster Preparedness Training Center.

His work is picking up the slack created by the health department’s lack of transparency with data throughout the pandemic, said Karl Kim, the disaster training center’s executive director.

“It takes some guy working on his own without the resources,” he said. “And then we have this whole department of health that isn’t able to do that. It is so absurd.”

The state has made additional efforts in recent weeks to release new metrics in response to widespread criticism from lawmakers and the public. Earlier this month, it launched a new prototype dashboard with some new metrics, including information about the number of contact tracers and summarized information about clusters, showing what types of facilities had high numbers of cases.

The new prototype data dashboard shows a number of new metrics, including mask usage. Screenshot-Department of Health

But the prototype didn’t quite measure up to Ozawa’s expectations. He said he had hoped it would provide more detailed data that would perhaps make his maps moot — it didn’t, and it was incomplete.

“It’s a picture of a dashboard,” Ozawa said.

The prototype is a static image file showing a bunch of charts instead of a dynamic, interactive tool like the health department said it would be, he said.

Hawaii Slack’s COVID-19 cluster map shows known outbreaks from primarily businesses and public facilities. The data is sourced from media reports and submissions by users, which he then verifies independently before publishing.

“I try to make sure every report is credible,” he said. “I’m not trying to shame businesses.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, the map showed 243 entries on Oahu, 29 on Maui and Molokai, 33 on Hawaii island and five on Kauai. Users can zoom in, click on each of the dots and see short narratives or click on links about each entry.

Given that there are more than 10,000 cumulative cases in the state now, these are a mere portion, but there’s no other map like it out there.

The Hawaii Slack COVID-19 Cluster Map is available on maps.hawaiislack.comScreenshot/Hawaii Slack

“It’s definitely an incomplete dataset,” he said. But as incomplete as it is, it’s still important to get as much information out there as possible, he added.

There is not a lot of public information or data that is being released by the health department about where Hawaii’s COVID-19 cases are, he said. While health officials have selectively disclosed locations of some outbreaks, they often point to privacy concerns for withholding certain information.

“Information on geographic location of COVID-19 can potentially identify an individual’s identity,” said Janice Okubo, a health department spokeswoman, in an email statement. “The Hawaii Department of Health is a steward to protect the privacy of individuals who would prefer not to disclose their COVID-19 status.”

While the department appreciates community efforts like Ozawa’s maps to “help others better understand the pandemic and how it is affecting the state,” there is stigma associated with having the disease, she said.

“When there is greater stigma about COVID-19, that may discourage individuals from seeking the necessary care that they would need to reduce the worsening of their health condition,” Okubo said.

Knowing where the cases are may help guide individual choices, but the more important message is to stay home, wear a mask, wash hands and physically distance, she said.

Ozawa said it’s not about shaming or outing anyone. The disclosures are voluntary and what he can’t confirm never makes it onto the map.

People just want to know how they can be safer during the pandemic, he said. Transparency helps with that sense of safety, so he’s doing his small part to help with that.

“People seem to value it,” he said. “I hope in the long run, it’s helpful.”

Filling A Gap

Based on the data of COVID-19 clusters that Ozawa has gathered, researchers are trying to determine hot spots in Hawaii and create a “social vulnerability index” to find out who’s more at risk and how well people are able to manage the disease, said Kim of the National Disaster Preparedness Training Center.

To study those things, it’s important to understand where the cases are distributed across the state, he said.

“The work that Ryan (Ozawa) is doing is really helping,” he said. “Obviously, this is a poor substitute for getting the same data from the Department of Health.”

Ryan Ozawa created and maintains COVID-19 maps for the community. Courtesy: Ryan Ozawa/2020

Presumably, the state would have a comprehensive dataset on where all or most of the more than 10,000 cumulative COVID-19 cases are and how they are spatially distributed, Kim said. He believes from past experience working with government that the state has the technology and funds to collect and track this data, but for some reason that hasn’t happened yet.

“It’s been a train wreck in slow motion,” he said of the state’s handling of COVID-19 data. “It’s a management issue in my view. This is a public health emergency and information is essential to effective response.”

That’s required community actors, such as Ozawa, to step in, Kim said.

The University of Hawaii’s mathematics department is also using Ozawa’s data to help inform its COVID-19 modeling project.

Monique Chyba, a professor and principal investigator of the project, said data from Ozawa’s maps was used to help determine the parameters for a COVID-19 model which, in part, tries to calculate how much money and lives could have been saved should the state have more aggressively tested and contact traced back before the surge in cases began in July.

“All of this makes sense only if we have really accurate data,” she said.

Unfortunately, there really isn’t any so researchers do what they can, including working with rough estimates or crowdsourced data like Ozawa’s, she added.

Working For Free

Ozawa said he’s also worked on some other COVID-19-related data projects to be of help during the pandemic.

One was a database of restaurants that were doing delivery and curbside takeout. He soon learned that another organization was working on the same idea, so he ended up giving his data to them.

He’s also built a registry of all the places selling face masks before basically every store started selling them.

“My daughter makes fun of me for all of the stuff I do for free,” he said.

But this is how he stays sane during the pandemic, he said, though he still wouldn’t mind moving on to another hobby.

“I think many of us data geeks would love to be put out of our hobbies by the department of health putting out the data,” he said.

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