Despite promise, big data fell short in COVID-19 fight, op-ed says

Facing the biggest public health emergency of our time, big data and artificial intelligence seemed poised to transform our lives, yet fell short, according to an op-ed published in PLOS Digital Health on Jan. 18. 

Digital data is generated constantly through people's use of wearables, home sensors, purchases and mobile devices. Throughout the pandemic, many technology companies made their data available, creating apps to fight COVID-19, from social distancing dashboards to symptom-based COVID-19 maps. However, the authors argued this data did not turn into meaningful action in the fight against the pandemic.

The authors were part of the COVID-19 Mobility Data Network, the goal of which was to help turn digital data from tech companies into tools that would aid communities. However, the authors wrote that they found barriers to applying the data. 

One issue was despite the network's ambition of sharing data, much of it was still in the hands of the private companies, leaving ownership and control murky. The authors also found the data lacked interoperability between systems. Lastly, local public health departments did not have the time or capacity to adjust to implementing new data into their systems. 

The authors are hopeful large compilations of data can be used for public good in future crises, and they suggest implementing agreements between tech companies and public health offices prior to crises and recommend this approach become standard across industries.

The op-ed was written by Caroline Buckee, PhD, and Satchit Balsari, MD, both from Boston-based Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, and Andrew Schroeder, PhD, vice president of research and analytics atDirect Relief, a humanitarian organization. 

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