Covid-19: Rethinking the value of data during global health crises

Covid19 Data culture Open Thread

April 28, 2020

Reading time : 8 min




In a world as internationalized and interdependent as ours, all countries, sectors, and fields of activity are affected by Covid-19 - and data is no exception. It is a crucial element for understanding the current crisis and its effects, as well as for learning how to manage it.

It has been more than a month since the outbreak of the Covid-19 epidemic in Europe. Since then, drastic measures have been taken to curb the virus, the likes of which have not been seen in the 21st century. Even if we still don't grasp the full impact of the crisis, these measures are already raising important questions regarding the economic, political, and societal conditions of the system in which we live. In a world as internationalized and interdependent as ours, all countries, sectors, and fields of activity are affected - and data is no exception. 

Data is a crucial element for understanding the current crisis and its effects, as well as for learning how to manage it. And data is all the more important when you consider that major advancements in information technologies over the past few decades are now coinciding with a more or less total state of lockdown, considerably increasing the amount of data generated by human interactions. 

Far from alleviating our doubts, this centrality invites us to take a step back and identify the main lessons that can be learned from this unique and unprecedented period.

What does the current crisis tell us about data-sharing practices in France?  How can we use these findings to redefine or reinforce the elements that enhance the value of data, in particular during such emergency situations? And how can we ensure these elements are integrated into governance processes despite their inevitably short-term relevance? 

Give us "raw data" 

In one of our previous articles, we saw how the current global health crisis is creating an unprecedented demand with regard to the collection and above all the dissemination of data. Bombarded with sometimes contradictory information, journalists, researchers, regulators, and now even the general public are in search of viable resources - the type of resources that provide objective, reliable, and detailed information on the epidemic and its consequences. While data is often understood as a raw material that needs to be shaped to make sense, more and more people are calling for the "return of raw data," or data stripped of all external interpretations.

One of the most striking examples of this movement is taking place in Belgium, where members of the media and scientific and political communities launched a petition requesting that the government grant them access to more raw data. In response, the Belgian Health Minister released a PDF document allowing data to be viewed but not accessed, which in turn caused an even greater stir on the social networks. Since then, the requested data was published on Sciensano's (the Belgian institute for health) website. It is clear that the request submitted to the public authorities did not concern the dissemination of information, but the information itself. 

Nevertheless, data alone is not necessarily a gauge of truth. As Rob Kitchin explains, data - even raw data - is never neutral. By nature, data is dependent on the context, the persons (physical or legal), and the technical and political methods that shape its production. A perfect illustration of this subjectivity lies in the different indicators selected by each country to describe the evolution of the current pandemic. France, for example, did not count the deaths that occurred in private residences or nursing homes until very recently. In such circumstances, data can also lead to confusion and even mistrust amongst the population. This is namely the case when figures, calculation methods, and the processes used to handle data are not communicated clearly. 

In this respect, any response to an increased demand for raw data must be accompanied by reinforced vigilance with regard to the quality of data and metadata. And because of the urgency of the situation, this response must also take into account the need to update and circulate the data quickly. It is therefore highly likely that these criteria will play an increasingly crucial role in the valuation of data, both in the healthcare sector and in any field that suffers long-term consequences due to the pandemic (economy, transportation, environment, tourism, etc.). 

When crises reveal silos

But guess what? Crisis-related needs are also the ones that highlight the structural constraints that prevent these needs from being met. In order to share data, data must exist. And if data exists, it must be able to circulate... In other words, political and economic agreements as well as  technological tools must allow the producers of data to distribute data both quickly and easily to those who can use it. However, this need for unprecedented coordination between sectors and regional authorities highlights the information silos that structure our society, a society that nonetheless prides itself on being one of information. 

These information silos are, for example, at the heart of challenges encountered by those involved in the medical response value chain (the government, regional authorities, emergency services, hospital services, nursing staff, etc.), in particular when it comes to creating gateways between the various local jurisdictions or the public and private sectors.

"If we need beds, we call a head nurse or a doctor in a public establishment to see if they can take a patient. But we never call private institutions. We don't even have their phone numbers," explained a member of the French Union of Professional Nurses to the journalists of Public Sénat. The need to strengthen ties (even temporarily) between the public and private sectors calls for profound cultural and technological changes to allow this data to be made accessible and above all freely exchanged. Such changes are already underway to ensure the many private workforces developed in response to these issues can share their data in a consolidated environment and contribute to the databases used by health and public authorities.

More generally, these gateways could also improve the coordination between the various operators who continue to maintain the operation of essential services such as logistics, food distribution, transportation, water, and energy. And they seem to be even more relevant at the city level, where actions are mainly carried out by networks of workers who are highly interdependent but who rarely work with other sectors. As with food chains, we might therefore imagine a new kind of "local distribution network" for data, one governed by public-private partnerships aimed at ensuring the sustainability of local systems during crises such as the current pandemic and beyond. 

Finally, these needs for cross-sectoral cooperation also present an opportunity to revisit important questions regarding privacy and the scope of authorized uses in the framework of these new types of exchange. Looking for evidence? Consider the current discussions between telecommunications operators and governments regarding data sharing to help track the spread of the virus. 

According to John Thornhill, who regularly weighs in on questions concerning new technologies and digitization in the columns of the Financial Times, "problems related to data governance are likely to become even more significant as governments seek to reap the benefits of datasets from the private sector as well as from their own. ”

Open data tops the list of local responses

If there is any data that shines during this dark period, it's definitely the open data published by local communities!  Open data has not only contributed to numerous scientific breakthroughs but is now the preferred means of local governments for sharing information with the public during the lockdown.

These initiatives were developed in a few short days by communities of all sizes with their own challenges and resources: discover them here.


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They demonstrate that when all the organizational and technological levers required for the opening of data are able to function without the presence of physical persons, open data becomes an easily maneuverable tool that is extremely effective for communicating during times of crisis. Despite an uncertain political climate, such initiatives make it possible for local authorities to be transparent with regard to the evolution of the health crisis in their regions. These initiatives also let them raise awareness regarding the actions and resources deployed to meet the needs of local companies and citizens.

In normal times, many communities often only publish data when they are legally bound to do so. The downside of this approach is that once published, the data is rarely converted into potential uses, even though this is precisely what makes data so valuable. 

During any crisis, extremely clear courses of action are set. By defining precise short-term political goals, authorities can identify the ways in which data can best be used to meet their primary objectives. It is less a matter of knowing whether these uses will continue to be developed after a crisis, but rather of discovering how they can be applied to other contexts and in other regions once the focus is no longer just on the crisis. 

Data at the heart of resilience strategies

Data sharing must be a core consideration when planning resilience strategies for our societies. Not only resilience in the face of crises, but resilience in a world beset by major climatic, ecological, economic, and ideological turmoil.

As a software provider, we can draw from the diversity of our partners to help create more sustainable data governance systems by highlighting the gateways that connect state governments, local governments, or different lines of business. 

We also have the privilege, each and every day, to witness the emergence of new challenges, projects, and developments which we strive to share with all the members of our ecosystem. knowledge sharing is vital, for it enables us to come up with new uses, beyond those developed in the context of the current crisis.

Finally, by supplying tools to meet the new demand, we can continue to help producers enhance, update, and improve the overall quality of their data. Among these tools is our precious open data network, the Data Network, which has just reached a new milestone: it now has more than 20,000 datasets! 

What kind of challenges do you envision for the data of tomorrow? Feel free to share your ideas with us on our social network pages.


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Covid19 Data culture Open Thread

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