What has the Covid-19 pandemic taught us about the importance and value of data?

Key figures in Scotland's data sector explain how covid has transformed how people see data.
Jason Leitch. Picture: TSPLJason Leitch. Picture: TSPL
Jason Leitch. Picture: TSPL

Jason Leitch, National Clinical Director, Scottish Government

Even before the pandemic, Scottish Government analysts were developing new ways to share data, collaborate and gain a better understanding of how life is changing for different parts of Scottish society.

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However, over the last few months, the pace and scale of this development has been unprecedented. Rapid and extensive expansion of data has allowed us to track and respond to Covid-19. Data has played a critical role throughout the pandemic, and there is much to learn in terms of how we use data in future.

Data has been vital to modelling the potential impacts of the pandemic on demand for health and other services, to ensure they have sufficient capacity to respond to the surge in infection.

It has also been used to inform the actions required to minimise impact and keep people safe. Daily “observed” data on indicators such as cases, testing, hospitalisations and deaths has been essential in informing policy and operational decision-making. The Scottish Government has been recognised by the Office for Statistics Regulation for regularly publishing a wide range of transparent information on these indicators.

Sharing data publicly in this timely way keeps everyone informed and can help build trust and confidence in decision-making and public messaging.

Professor Alex Pentland, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

I think a consensus is developing that data, particularly neighbourhood data, is a public good. You need neighbourhood-level data to see disparities in health outcomes. You cannot answer “Why are these people dying and those people not?” without it.

You have to aggregate and anonymise such data to protect privacy, but it can help us see if governments are doing the right thing … or not. For example, our Covid-19 work in New York showed many people were getting infected in grocery stores, so they changed policy and staff brought orders outside rather than letting people in to shop. You can also use data to identify local patterns, like more people suddenly going to hospital, to predict where outbreaks will happen.

We’ve also learned more about using big data for public good – and that this varies around the world. If you look at track and trace, South Korea was lauded for using a government app to flatten its Covid-19 curve, but that couldn’t happen in most democractic societies. To be effective, you need a small number of cases and everybody using the app. South Korea could do that, but in the UK or US, privacy concerns arise.

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After the Cambridge Analytica scandal, we heard lots about evil surveillance. That conversation forgot the good side of data. Now it’s time to use data effectively at local level to inform policy.

To avoid data being concentrated in the hands of powerful corporations and governments, we need “data unions” to empower communities to understand data and control its use. It’s about moving away from centralisation of data to distributed control.

Wendy Redshaw Chief Digital Officer, RBS

As an organisation, we at the Royal Bank of Scotland have been faced with a huge challenge over these past few months, due to Covid-19, to ensure that we could best support our customers. We have had to adapt the way we work, the way we communicate and some of the services we offer.

In these challenging circumstances, we have had to move with agility, embrace change, develop new and different ways of working and communicating both with each other, and with our customers. Without data and insight, this would have been an almost impossible task.

Rich customer data has allowed us to tailor our response to the crisis, ensuring we are able to communicate to customers quickly and remain relevant to their current and future needs. This rich data has enabled us to support our customers more quickly, and identify in real time what

services are being used or

under-used so that we can ease pressure points and act quickly to resolve any issues.

Throughout the crisis, we have been committed to keeping our branch network open, while keeping customers and colleagues safe.

A great example of data and insights in action were enhancements to our branch opening hours via Branch Locator, Google My Business, Cora and Near Me functionality in the Royal Bank app.

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This made it easy for customers to track down the closest open branches and cash machines to them, in real time, in the midst of Covid-19 uncertainty and lockdown.

Rachel Aldighieri, Managing Director, DMA

The pandemic has taught us that data can be a force for good – but with clear caveats. It’s at times of high stress and tension that relationships can be broken, so the value and importance of data to truly understand attitudes and mindsets is critical.

Organisations that have put people first have not only been able to find the right approach but have also built more empathetic and authentic brands. They’ve done this by using data to predict and understand communities, customers and employees – in some cases even turning their business models on their head in order to succeed.

Also, the pandemic has amplified the critical importance of trust. Without it, we cannot collect the data we need to serve people better.

Nobody should have to choose between privacy and access to a product or service – especially not when it relates to their health. While building trust is complex, Scotland’s AI strategy lays out the foundations– particularly around the role of ethics, inclusion and collaboration.

Embedding ethical frameworks into mainstream data practices is vital to ensure that ethics and values are at the centre of business practice and people’s rights are protected. It’s only then that data can truly be a force for good.

Jarmo Eskelinen Executive Director, Data-Driven Innovation initiative

When Covid-19 hit Scotland, a group of researchers and technology experts, led by professors Nick Mills and Mark Parsons, were busy planning NHS DataLoch: a storage facility holding health and social care data for the residents of the Edinburgh city region in defined, linked and accessible format.

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It was meant to be in full use in 2021. Instead, within a month, the team launched the DataLoch Covid-19 Collaborative – a comprehensive, accurate and current repository for all patients tested for Covid-19 in south-east Scotland, with diagnoses and outcomes, supported by clinicians, academics and data scientists.

Since May, it has enabled rapid evaluation of new diagnostic tests and pathways to improve care – helping to save lives. It shows access to open, inter-operable and timely data is critical for understanding the pandemic and the best strategies for responding.

Data is also needed to produce timely insights into economic, social and environmental impacts of the pandemic. Without this, our ability to learn from this crisis for the future will be severely undermined.

However, as Prof Shannon Vallor has emphasised, new data streams don’t help if the human and institutional failures that underlie the present pandemic remain unaddressed. We need to consider what sources of data we already had and failed to use effectively, and analyse where the data gaps are. More data for the sake of it is not the answer.

Gillian Docherty Chief Executive, The Data Lab

The pandemic has taught us an awful lot about the importance and value of data, across multiple spheres. The obvious one is health: we have used data to track the pandemic and infection rates and to identify hotspots and respond to that.

But it’s a much bigger picture. Businesses are more aware of the value of data in terms of managing supply chains, understanding customers and optimising various elements of their business by using data better.

In the public sector, behind the management of the virus and tracking, there is also a broad societal impact, such as shielding and school closures.

Data has informed decisions and policy-making across so many areas, including furlough and other business support measures. Having economic data can inform decisions on where interventions are targeted for greatest impact.

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The pandemic has also affected data gathering, sharing and analysis in the public sector. I have been involved with public sector organisations for more than a decade and never seen the level of co-operation and collaboration I’ve seen over the last five months.

There have to be real, lasting benefits of the walls coming down, the willingness to support each other and the can-do attitude – and this has included handling, sharing and analysing data.

This was achieved while respecting governance and public privacy. The public sector proved it could move at speed to do what needed to be done without ripping up the rule book. That’s really positive.

There is, however, still a big piece of work to do around common data standards and frameworks: it is much easier to share data (ethically and legally) between public bodies when everything is aligned. The Scottish Government is well advanced in looking at this.