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UK response to pandemic hampered by poor data practices

24 November 2020

The UK is well behind other countries in making use of data to have a real time understanding of the spread and economic impact of the pandemic according to Data Evaluation and Learning for Viral Epidemics (DELVE), a multi-disciplinary group convened by the Royal Society.

The report, Data Readiness: Lessons from an Emergency, highlights how data such as aggregated and anonymised mobility and payment transaction data, already gathered by companies, could be used to give a more accurate picture of the pandemic at national and local levels.  That could in turn lead to improvements in evaluation and better targeting of interventions.

Maximising the value of big data at a time of crisis requires careful cooperation across the private sector, that is already gathering these data, the public sector, which can provide a base for aggregating and overseeing the correct use of the data and researchers who have the skills to analyse it for the public good.  This work needs to be developed in accordance with data protection legislation and respect people’s concerns about data security and privacy.

The report calls on the Government to extend the powers of the Office for National Statistics to enable them to support trustworthy access to ‘happenstance’ data – data that are already gathered but not for a specific public health purpose – and for the Government to fund pathfinder projects that focus on specific policy questions such as how we nowcast economic metrics and how we better understand population movements.

Neil Lawrence, DeepMind Professor of Machine Learning at the University of Cambridge, Senior AI Fellow at The Alan Turing Institute and an author of the report, said: “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.  We need to plan better for national emergencies. We need to look at the National Risk Register through the lens of what data would help us to respond more effectively. We have to learn our lessons from experiences in this pandemic and be better prepared for future crises.  That means doing the work now to ensure that companies, the public sector and researchers have pathfinder projects up and running to share and analyse data and help the government to make better informed decisions.”  

During the pandemic, counts of the daily flow of people from one place to another between more than 3000 districts in Spain have been available at the click of a button, allowing policy makers to more effectively understand how the movement of people contributes to the spread of the virus. This was based on a collaboration between the country’s three main mobile phone operators.  In France, measuring the impact of the pandemic on consumer spending on a daily and weekly scale was possible as a result of coordinated cooperation between the country’s national interbank network. 

Professor Lawrence added: “Mobile phone companies might provide a huge amount of anonymised and aggregated data that would allow us a much greater understanding of how people move around, potentially spreading the virus as they go.  And there is a wealth of other data, such as from transport systems. The more we understand about this pandemic, the better we can tackle it. 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.”

The report also highlights problems with accessing national data and recommends a collaboration between the Office for National Statistics and the Information Commissioners Office to formulate their accreditation process into a standardised qualification for a data access – a form of ‘data driving licence’.

The report can be accessed via GitHub.

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The UK is well behind other countries in making use of data to have a real time understanding of the spread and economic impact of the pandemic according to Data Evaluation and Learning for Viral Epidemics (DELVE), a multi-disciplinary group convened by the Royal Society.

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