Data collaboration and collation the key to understanding coronavirus

Information was shared more widely and more quickly than ever before, and harnessed in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. Peter Mathieson discusses the way forward

Peter Mathieson
Peter Mathieson

It has been a year like no other. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected all aspects of our lives in 2020. Every decision taken during the pandemic – and every effort to shape a safer future – has been influenced by data.

Data allowed experts to gene-sequence the virus, understand its structure and predict drugs that might help treat it. Data mapped how and where the virus was spreading, identified hotspots and helped shape policy decisions in response.

Like never before, we pored over graphs and statistics – of infection rates in different countries and regions, how death rates have differed from the annual norm and the importance of the R (reproduction) number.

Data mapped how and where the virus was spreading, identified hotspots and helped shape policy decisions in response.

And we tried to make sense of what all this information meant in terms of the new rules and restrictions governing our daily lives. We have been implored, again and again, to “follow the science” in our work, our shopping trips, our social interactions. What this really means is following the data.

It has been a period where we have been stretched to our limits, and sometimes beyond, but also a time where individuals and organisations have risen to the toughest of challenges.

At the heart of our response has been a desire to co-operate, to support family, friends and neighbours, work colleagues and our wider community.

This collaborative approach has also been at the heart of the data community’s response to the pandemic. Never before has it been more important to share data, at speed, with those who need it. Strong, effective partnership working has been vital in delivering insights from data – and helping to save lives.

It’s about Doing Data Together.

The University of Edinburgh itself was well down the path of different disciplines working together, but that has accelerated significantly over the last six months.

One clear example is the Advanced Care Research Centre (ACRC), where the project moved quickly from planning to doing, as the systemic problems of the care sector highlighted by Covid-19 gave real urgency to the project.

The ACRC is a brilliant example of Doing Data Together, with the private sector – in the shape of Legal & General – joining the university to look in depth at all aspects of care and how we can do things better.

The collaboration goes further: research outputs will be “open source” – ie, available for all those working in elderly care to analyse and use – while at a university level, the project leadership team brings together experts including experienced dementia researchers and highly-skilled engineers.

Professor Ian Underwood, an expert in sensors who is involved in ACRC, says: “Diverse teams generally operate more effectively than teams of people who are very similar; it’s about people with different perspectives who bring different tools to problem-solving. You have to learn other languages and understand the skills and tools of other disciplines because you are part of a common goal and face common challenges.”

This sense of collaboration is also highlighted by the project to bring the Global Open Finance Centre of Excellence to Edinburgh. A wide range of groups has come together to identify major challenges around access to finance on a global scale and find solutions.

We are also doing data together locally, with fascinating collaborations emerging around the ways in which we use data-driven innovation to tackle fundamental challenges thrown up by the pandemic.

The DDI programme’s small grant fund is getting under the bonnet of those challenges – mapping tourism recovery by examining the attitudes of visitors from different countries to travelling to Scotland; looking at the resilience of food and drink businesses, and analysing healthcare demands to ensure we are better-prepared to cope with future crises. In each case, the university is working with relevant businesses and trade bodies to better understand the challenges – and use data to respond effectively.

Last year, Jarmo Eskelinen, DDI programme director, said if we harnessed data effectively, we could rise to the very biggest challenges we face, including climate change, the future of work and inequality.

He also stressed that this will only happen if we do data right, if we provide that ethical framework to inform everything we do with data.That’s why the university appointed Professor Shannon Vallor as the first Baillie Gifford Chair in the Ethics of Data and Artificial Intelligence (AI) last autumn. To attract an academic of the calibre of Prof Vallor shows the global leadership that Edinburgh is taking in the ethics of data, AI and technology in general.

Prof Vallor insists we must not allow ourselves to fall into “technological determinism” and assume the dizzying pace of technological change will shape our future. We must not be passive observers in the march of progress.

As she points out, technology and AI are “human all the way” – and technology does not live outside our social world, it is interwoven.

Her mission, in the Centre for Technomoral Futures, is to bring together expertise in technology and ethics, to design and manage systems that work better for people, to build better worlds. As Prof Vallor says: “How can we create something which isn’t a battle between technology and ethics but something truly collaborative? How can we use data and AI in socially and politically constructive ways to build systems and institutions that actually support people?”

At a time when the pandemic has raised fundamental questions about data privacy, these ethical discussions about technology and data are more important than ever.

Countries like South Korea were praised for their track-and-trace systems, but in the West, we are more reluctant to share the details of our daily movements, even if we can see the public health benefits. At the same time, millions of people seem content to tick boxes allowing online retailers or social media giants to use their private data.

Have we given over too much control of our data to large private corporations? Why are we apparently more reluctant to share information with the state, even if we can see that using our personal data can potentially help stop the spread of a pandemic?

These are fundamental questions, and we are asking them in Edinburgh.

As we seek to control the Covid-19 pandemic, to find a vaccine and distribute it to the people who need it, both ethics and ethical collaboration will be at the very heart of what we do.

The road ahead is uncertain and new challenges will emerge, but data will continue to shape our responses.

As data-driven innovation helps us to seek solutions, in Edinburgh our commitment is steadfast. We must do data right – and we must do it together.

Peter Mathieson is the Principal of the University of Edinburgh

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