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OPINION | Data and the Road to Recovery from Coronavirus Pandemic

By: Shweta Sharma

Last Updated: June 26, 2020, 13:15 IST

A medical worker collects a sample from a woman at a school turned into a centre to conduct tests for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), amidst its spread (Reuters)

A medical worker collects a sample from a woman at a school turned into a centre to conduct tests for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), amidst its spread (Reuters)

A coordinated approach is required to ensure we don’t end up data rich, information poor.

High-quality data is always the cornerstone for policy decisions, but more so in times as uncertain as these. Now, it is also a great unifier, as countries trace the transmission of the Covid-19 virus across continents and demographics. Strengths have been tested and new opportunities revealed. The first among these is the large-scale sharing of Covid-19 data sets across the globe.

The last couple of months have seen a surge in the data being shared by governments, health organisations, etc. For instance, the COVID-19 Dashboard developed by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University of Medicine, collates data from multiple sources to present an overview of the disease trends globally, with the underlying data available for others to reuse.

Similarly, the dashboard developed by the World Health Organization allows users to explore multidimensional country-wise or global data across parameters such as populations, confirmed/cumulative cases and deaths.

In India, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) is providing regular Covid-19 updates on their website at national, state and district levels. India’s Aarogya Setu app allows users to assess the risk of Covid-19 based upon their location and history, provides real-time updates on the situation state-wise, provides access to resources and much more. The app crossed 100 million downloads within 40 days of launch.

Interestingly, the outbreak response has also highlighted the significance of crowd-sourcing and data aggregation, as coders from the around the world developed and deployed platforms for tracking the emerging Covid-19 cases to supplement the reports based on confirmed cases.

In India, developers, such as at covid19india.org, are voluntarily aggregating, curating and verifying data from multiple sources, including MoHFW, state press bulletins, official social media handles etc., to provide the latest information available for coronavirus cases.

While data aggregation involves gathering datasets from various sources into a combined dataset for further synthesis and visualisation, crowdsourcing is a term used to refer to identifying a solution for a common problem by engaging a group of individuals or organisations.

The government of India also launched the “Covid-19 Solution Challenge” on the MyGov platform to source innovative technologies and solutions from individuals and start-ups. As a part of resources, the MyGov platform also provides links to public datasets for research and innovation on coronavirus.

Going beyond contact tracing and tracking, the Department of Science and Technology launched a mobile application Sahyog to map critical infrastructure to support the government’s response initiatives. Developed and managed by the Survey of India, the Sahyog app integrates Covid-19 specific geospatial datasets collected through community engagement to provide location-specific data to government agencies.

However, a coordinated approach is required to ensure we don’t end up data rich, information poor. Researchers, organisations and governments need to act as enablers for facilitating data exchange in the social sector in a simple, safe and secure manner with clear standards and guidelines on data use.

The Covid-19 outbreak presents an enormous opportunity for governments and organisations to enact a paradigm shift in strengthening their data architecture, across all domains and not just in healthcare. Recovery requires new data systems to sustain continuity. The aftermath of Covid-19 would also require a re-think of emergency preparedness to prevent recurrence of the pandemic and occurrence of new disease outbreaks.

One of the first steps in this direction would be to strengthen the evidence base, by building on existing knowledge related to pandemics through analysis of historical data, systematic reviews and funding research to address the gaps in the evidence base.

Difficult times demand innovation and creative thinking. In this case, considering the need for social distancing, methodological innovation is required for data collection. Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA), a research and policy non-profit organization, is, for example, adapting on-going phone surveys to track Covid-19 response or behavioural change. This would be an opportune time to explore collecting information using low-contact solutions such as drones, satellites, social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), SMS-based surveys, and even traditional media such as radio.

The European Space Agency has issued initiatives inviting proposals from remote sensing experts, machine learning to understand how satellite data could be used to understand the effects of the pandemic on economic sectors such as industry, commerce, transport and agriculture. Experts at the World Bank’s Independent Evaluation Group have, however, highlighted the need for aligning technology to the data collection requirements, while taking into account the potential exclusionary nature and low granularity associated with tech-dependent data collection tools.

As of December 2019, while there are more than 500 million smartphone users in India, tele-density remains low (56.39 per cent) in most rural areas. The challenge, therefore, lies in identifying tools and methodologies, which enable rapid, reliable data collection in these areas, which are likely to face worse consequences of the fallout of the pandemic.

Another challenge is data protection in the context of the coronavirus outbreak. Many have voiced concerns around data security and privacy when sharing and collecting data. While most platforms have been providing access to anonymized data sets, tech-enabled data systems are vulnerable to breach.

Furthermore, countries such as China and Israel have been reported to be taking strict surveillance measure to enforce quarantine, leading many to believe that the use of surveillance systems and data may have far-reaching implications on personal freedom beyond the present Covid-19 situation.

However, as pointed out by noted historian and author, Yuval Noah Harari, privacy and surveillance can co-exist based on a relationship of trust between the citizens and their government. Hence, while citizens need to support initiatives through honest reporting, all organisations collecting monitoring and evaluation data need to ensure that the privacy and security issues are addressed from the beginning, to protect the digital data and privacy of citizens.

Similar to social media, Covid-19 will inevitably re-define the norms around privacy. But it is heartening to see two industry stalwarts, Google and Apple, join forces to develop a Bluetooth-based contact tracing technology with user privacy and security at its centre.

Under the omnipresent threat of emerging crises, it is important to learn from our experiences and emerge with stronger capabilities. The pandemic has exposed deep-seated vulnerabilities rooted in global interdependencies.

Using these interdependencies as strengths can flip the narrative. Eradication of smallpox in 1980 from the world is a great example of what can be accomplished if all the countries work together. We must learn together, irrespective of state, national or international borders, by sharing reliable data, information, and insights to identify solutions and re-build the world.

Disclaimer:Dr Shweta Sharma is Consultant, Development Monitoring and Evaluation Office, NITI Aayog. Views expressed are personal.
first published:June 26, 2020, 13:15 IST
last updated:June 26, 2020, 13:15 IST