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Wealth of data to help understand Covid-19 spread ‘not being utilised'

Anonymised data from mobile networks and transport companies could help give a more accurate picture of the pandemic, researchers say
Jamie Harris (PA)

THE UK is trailing behind other countries in making use of data to better understand the spread and economic impact of the coronavirus, a new report states.

Aggregated and anonymised data from mobile networks on how people move around and payment transaction data already gathered by organisations including transport companies are just some of the ways that could help give a more accurate picture of the pandemic at UK-wide and local levels, the Data Readiness: Lessons from an Emergency report suggests.

In Spain for example, the main mobile phone operators made it possible to see the daily flow of people from origin to destination between more than 3,000 districts.

“The UK has talked about making better use of data for the public good, but we have had statements of good intent, rather than action,” said Professor Neil Lawrence, from the University of Cambridge, who is also a senior AI fellow at The Alan Turing Institute and an author of the report. “We need to plan better for national emergencies.”

The Royal Society Delve (Data Evaluation and Learning for Viral Epidemics) Initiative calls on the government to extend the powers of the Office for National Statistics to enable it to support trustworthy access to “happenstance” data – data that are already gathered, but not for a specific public health purpose.

But it warns that “careful cooperation” would be needed across the private sector, public sector, and researchers, as well as being developed in accordance with data protection legislation and ensuring it respects people's security and privacy.

“We should be able to work together, the private and the public sectors, to harness big data for massive positive social good and do that safely and responsibly,” Prof Lawrence said.

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