Dr. Ashraf Aboulnaga says QCRI responded to the pandemic from day one by developing technologies and applications for existing challenges
From the first week of the pandemic, Qatar Computing Research Institute was swift to respond – they developed a system that traces the movement of people based on cell phone data.
Our system helped the health authorities with contact tracing for COVID-19 positive patients, especially in the first few weeks of the pandemic, before the Ehteraz app was deployed
“Our system helped the health authorities with contact tracing for COVID-19 positive patients, especially in the first few weeks of the pandemic, before the Ehteraz app was deployed,” Dr. Ashraf Aboulnaga, Senior Research Director at Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI), explains.
The Hamad Bin Khalifa University research institute was quick to develop a portfolio of applications and tools to address national and global priorities in the fight against COVID-19, with solutions ranging from digital health tools, analyzing data, and facilitating literature reviews, among many others.
One such solution was to gather data related to social distancing to help policymakers.
“Now that people are aware of social distancing and its importance in the way we respond to the pandemic, it is important for users and health authorities to be able to measure and analyze the degree of social distancing and contacts,” Dr. Aboulnaga says.
He highlights the importance of measuring social distancing at the scale of the entire country, such as which places are visited by people more than usual and which are visited less than usual.
“QCRI has developed a web-based dashboard that computes this information based on Google data and displays a map showing the reduction or increase in visits for important locations in Doha. This is valuable data that is used by the health authorities in Qatar,” Dr. Aboulnaga says.
And it is not just Qatar that is benefitting from this data-gathering system. QCRI has partnered with several NGOs to extend this dashboard to other cities such as Kuwait, Beirut, Amman, Nairobi, and Lagos.
The Qatar Foundation research institute has also developed mobile phone apps that use GPS for contact-tracing to ensure quarantined people remain within their quarantine area, as well as an online self-assessment tool that is accessible from the web or mobile phones.
The online self-assessment tool is based on a questionnaire that helps users’ assess their symptoms and decide their next steps, such as seeking medical help
“The online self-assessment tool is based on a questionnaire that helps users asses their symptoms and decide their next steps, such as seeking medical help,” Dr. Aboulnaga says.
The tool is a web-based tool and is based on the guidelines laid out by the World Health Organization and Hamad Medical Corporation. A key feature of the self-assessment tool is that it is multi-lingual.
The tool has been very successful, Dr. Aboulnaga says, with 1.3 million visits to date. The tool is available in 11 languages and the two most popular are Arabic and Hindi.
We adapted our technologies to help in identifying rumors and disinformation around COVID-19
Besides this, QCRI has also modeled and visualized the evolution of the pandemic. The research institute created a dashboard that summarizes data related to the pandemic in Qatar and the GCC countries which helps predict disease development.
“The dashboard is used by government health authorities in Qatar, and internally within Qatar Foundation,” Dr. Aboulnaga says.
QCRI also strives to address false and inaccurate information that makes its way to social media – a prominent feature of today’s hyperconnected social media age where a lot of disinformation about COVID-19 is created – also known as “infodemic”.
QCRI has a system called Rayyan that facilitates large literature reviews. It is a mature system used by 65,000 users around the world, and it has been used heavily in this pandemic
“For the past few years, QCRI has been working on analyzing social media and countering propaganda in the news and media,” says Dr. Aboulnaga. “We adapted our technologies to help in identifying rumors and disinformation around COVID-19. We produce regular reports about social media for the health authorities and provide web-based tools to identify and analyze propaganda.”
Countering COVID-19 requires scientists and public health practitioners to review large amounts of scientific literature and publications with a view to collecting evidence supporting their hypotheses, and to seek answers to relevant questions, Dr. Aboulnaga explains – for example, have any studies demonstrated a link between weather and prevalence of COVID-19?
“QCRI has a system called Rayyan that facilitates large literature reviews. It is a mature system used by 65,000 users around the world, and it has been used heavily in this pandemic,” Dr. Aboulnaga says.
CORD-19 – a data set of over 150,000 scientific articles related to COVID-19 released in the US at the request of the White House and immensely valuable to researchers – is available in Rayyan.
Rayyan was also independently evaluated by a group of users in Sweden. The results of this evaluation showed that users saved time on average more than 50 percent, compared to other methods and tools. And a recent study conducted by a group of researchers from the University of Cambridge lists Rayyan among the “top 15 tools for checking titles and summaries”.
It is interesting to see how the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of scientific research and its broad usefulness to society. As scientists, all over the world, have been at the forefront of the response to the pandemic, and that it is now common to see press conferences about the pandemic given by a scientific advisor.
“Governments are making critical high-profile decisions such as locking down the country based on scientific input. Scientific concepts such as “reproduction rate” and “flattening the curve” are now part of the daily discourse in mass media.
“I hope that this illustration of the importance of science and its critical relevance in our lives creates interest in the young generation to pursue careers in science and technology,” Dr. Aboulnaga says.