The role of data in the fight against the pandemic

The role of data in the fight against the pandemic

In a webinar by the Vodafone Institute, Emmanuel Letouzé and Nuria Oliver, authors of Using Data to Fight COVID-19 – And Build Back Better, discussed the paper with Kenneth Cukier.

In a co-joint work with Data-Pop Alliance, the Vodafone Institute published the policy paper “Using Data to Fight COVID-19 – And Build Back Better” that researches how digital technologies and data were applied to fight the Coronavirus worldwide. The authors, Emmanuel Letouzé, Director of Data-Pop Alliance, and Nuria Oliver, Chief Scientific Adviser of the Vodafone Institute for Society and Communications, were joined by Kenneth Cukier, business and technology journalist best known for his work at The Economist and his bestselling book Big Data: A Revolution that Will Transform How We Work, Live and Think.

After an introduction by Inger Paus, Managing Director of the Vodafone Institute, Letouzé explains how Oliver and he developed the idea for the paper. He describes how the pandemic pretty clearly exposed global fault lines, such as rising inequality, racism, or domestic violence. It raised many serious questions and concerns, including the threat of democracy around the world. Observations could be made, for instance, how areas with a higher average income have reduced mobility faster and earlier than low-income neighbourhoods, an injustice that reflects and reinforces these fault lines. Data helps us to understand such mechanisms and gives us the means to change this.

How digital tools help us understand the pandemic

Emmanuel Letouzé and Nuria Oliver discussed the paper with Kenneth Cukier. (Photo: Vodafone Institute)

Letouzé then moves on to explain how digital technologies are helpful in a lot of different ways and may be among the crucial factors in the fight against the pandemic. The first step is impact assessment, meaning how technology can help to contain the spread of the disease. Digital tools enabled governments to encourage home-schooling or teleworking, but also to understand human mobility patterns. But data can be further utilised to predict future developments of the pandemic, to identify its key drivers or to help create situational awareness, by giving us the opportunity to collect survey data about how the people are feeling about the restrictions and security measurements. However, the authors emphasize that the pandemic highlights the need for a balance between quick government action and digital rights.

Finally, Oliver introduces six key recommendations on how to fight COVID-19 and build back better. Besides deploying data and technology that are fit for purpose and promoting data literacy, she emphasized how people need to be placed at the centre at all times. Moreover, governments need to think and act boldly and decisively and need to consider regulation as an enabler to set the right incentives.

The pandemic as a test for society

Kenneth Cukier, data expert himself, then congratulates the authors on the report and emphasizes how important this kind of work is in order to understand the current situation. His general observation is that COVID-19 gives us the opportunity to assess how we, as a society, perform in times of crises and stress. Unfortunately, the public sector failed this test, while citizens showed very contrasting behaviour, from resigned to very inspiring reactions. He explains how governments around the world had access to a lot of different technologies that could have helped to contain the virus before it spread but decided to not employ them.

But according to Cukier, the main problem that lies outside of data is the lack of trust that people have in institutions. This is where the most work needs to be done, in regaining this trust from the public, not only to handle the current crisis, but also upcoming global problems of the 21st century such as climate change.

Oliver, who is experienced in working with governments, argues that the public sector needs time to rebuild. She can see a huge potential, although there is a lot of risk aversion and a broad range of interest groups to satisfy. But governments have shown to be willing to work with data scientists and become more digitally literate. That is an impact that will hopefully last after the pandemic.

Find the slides from the webinar here.