Opinion article

Data innovation & public partnership to fight COVID-19

Managing Director of data strategy consulting firm Smash Delta, Ben Morley-John, highlights the shortfalls of Australia's data strategy during the COVID-19 crisis and introduces a new way of collecting and using data that preserves the privacy of users while maximising our ability to limit the spread of COVID-19.

We are making tremendous strides towards the elimination of COVID-19 here in Australia, but the story is far from over. As the economic and social costs begin to mount, now is the time to harness the best technology and data, in partnership with the public, to carve out a ‘new normal’ that brings lives and livelihoods back without sacrificing our privacy.

The continuing threat

Australia has done an excellent job of arresting the spread of the virus as social distancing measures have seen the number of active cases decline much earlier than anticipated. As a result, we are now entering the next phase: planning to resume some aspects of our normal lives, while still moving decisively to eliminate the virus. However, as some restrictions are lifted, so much is still unknown about the virus (including whether and for how long it imparts immunity to those who have been infected1) and reverting too quickly to our old way of life could quickly reignite the spread. While we await improved treatments, alongside a vaccine, we must harness data as best as we can to trace and contain the spread of the virus.

What we have and what we need

In Australia, our person-level contract tracing regime includes two key ‘data assets’: infected patient interviews (conducted by hundreds of hard-working health care workers across the country) and Bluetooth information (collected and transferred through the newly-launched COVIDSafe App). These ‘data assets’ will continue to help greatly in the COVID-19 containment efforts but they have several limitations:
  • There is evidence that manual contact tracing may be too slow to contain the virus2, it can be limited by patient memory, and health authorities’ can struggle to get in touch with contacts the infected patient doesn’t know personally
  • While Bluetooth tracing is a valuable leap forward in contact tracing capability, it requires very high adoption rates to be successful (40-60 per cent according to various models3). In addition, Bluetooth apps only detect proximity between pairs of phones, which means it can miss infection events, such as the virus being left behind on surfaces, or ‘superspreading’ events where conditions enable the virus to spread further through the air than would be captured by Bluetooth4. Finally, as Bluetooth has no location data attached, it helps ensure privacy, but doesn’t provide a geospatial picture of potential spread, which could be useful in informing pre-emptive responses
Due to these limitations, there is a need to capture more information to better trace and contain the virus. 

Current tracing methods can capture some locations and people potentially at risk, due to the movement of an infective person

Tracing and containment: a myriad of responses

Overseas, some of the governments more successful in flattening the curve have deployed methods that are controversial or outright draconian. South Korea’s tracing regime has driven social stigma by laying bare (anonymised, but potentially re-identifiable) patient movement to the public; while China has mandated the use of facial recognition technology and body-temperature scanning, in addition to issuing risk-based colour codes to its citizens.
At this point, it may feel like Australians have a difficult choice to make: fully contain the spread of COVID-19 and lose our privacy or settle for what we have, retain our privacy and hope a panacea for the crisis arrives soon. 
This is a false choice.
We have the capability to control and ultimately eradicate COVID-19 while still retaining our fundamental right to privacy. The key to this is using data in partnership with our community in a way that is unprecedented in Australia and also happens to be long overdue.

Our Way Forward: Data Innovation & Public Partnership

Today, we have released our whitepaper To Zero & Beyond, outlining how Australia has the capacity to collectively build an advanced disease tracing and containment capability and how to bring it together in a way that works for both those tasked with eradicating the disease and the public at large.

Until now, driving clarity on privacy has often been seen as the fly in the ointment of data and artificial intelligence innovation, with many organisations assembling a smoke screen of “we protect your privacy” without giving consumers a real-life view of exactly how their data is being used, and for what purpose. With such a pressing need to use data in solving COVID-19, we are finally being forced to weigh up our options and see if we can find a balance between innovation and privacy. As a result, we now have a golden opportunity to collectively decide what our data future in Australia is going to look like.

Public partnership

At the core of the advanced tracing and containment strategy sits the need for public partnership. This means that additional data is collected from fully-informed participants, is used in a transparent way that protects privacy, and drives full accountability for responsible use, backed by legislation (further explored in the whitepaper).

We propose a radical new level of transparency: where those contributing information to tracing and containment efforts are provided with the complete detail of what has been accessed, how it has been used, how it helped, and confirmation of its destruction after analysis. By bringing the public into the process, we are enabling them to be true partners in the COVID-19 eradication effort and establishing a new blueprint for data innovation in Australia.  

How would it work?

Boosting our COVID-19 tracing and containment centres on two key pillars: new data and new analytical capabilities. This is based on our experience in working with government and industry to deploy advanced data analytics capabilities over the past several years, tackling problems not dissimilar from this one. 

New Data

Consent-driven personal information: By creating a framework that enables participants to share a selection of movement and transaction data (from their infective period) with health analysts, critical gaps in the tracing layer can be bridged. This may involve an infected individual choosing to share a selection of credit card transaction locations, mobile device movements and public transit trips (amongst others), through a purpose-built and secure channel with health analysts assigned to their case. This information could also help uncover areas where there are higher risks of indirect contact – through surfaces, for instance.

Additional consent-driven data can supplement the contract tracing capability, enabling more newly-infected people and at-risk areas to be revealed

Aggregate population behaviours: Already existing aggregated and anonymised population behavioural data can provide a powerful lens on how activity trends across our cities are influencing the spread of the virus. Data assets deployed can include aggregated mobile device movements (e.g. seeing 5000 devices regularly moving from one high risk part of a city to another), location spend activity (e.g. credit/debit card terminal activity by location) and public transport usage. 

New Analytical Capabilities

Having a data-driven picture of the movement patterns in our city will help to:
  • Enhance our standard epidemiological models, by enabling them to become ‘spatially aware’ and build more granular projections on a neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood basis;
  • Better identify high risk areas through the use of density and throughput analysis of infected people;
  • Predict the geospatial spread of the virus through the use of sophisticated algorithmic modelling, such as agent-based simulations, alongside machine learning and AI-based solutions 
We explore the detail of how this would work in our whitepaper, but the key output of this process is a more granular, predictive view of virus spread and re-emergence across our communities. This new capability will arm our health authorities with a more granular assessment of risk and resourcing needs (such as testing and treatment) across our cities, enabling decisions to be made dynamically and pre-emptively, rather than in response to new outbreaks.

The outcome: reopening and focused intervention

Until now, the only way to effectively arrest the spread of the virus has been to apply the same rules to everyone - broad lockdowns and the partial or full closure of business. An enhanced tracing and containment capability could enable emerging disease clusters and high-risk areas to be even more proactively managed. This would provide a basis for large parts of our cities to substantially open, while allowing governments to focus health and financial assistance on those people and areas that need them most. 
By many accounts, this and other viruses are likely to be a continuing threat well into the future. We owe it to Australians and our global neighbours to do our utmost to solve it. In addition, by bringing the public with us on the journey to eradicate COVID-19, we not only stand a better chance of doing so, but we secure a brighter, more inclusive data future for our country.
But we need to get moving now.
1 World Health Organization. (2020). “Immunity passports” in the context of COVID-19: scientific brief, 24 April 2020 (No. WHO/2019-nCoV/Sci_Brief/Immunity_passport/2020.1). World Health Organization.

2 Ferretti, L et al. Quantifying SARS-CoV-2 transmission suggests epidemic control with digital contact tracing. Science (2020).

3 Probyn, A. (2020, 26th April). Coronavirus lockdowns could end in months if Australians are willing to have their movements monitored. ABC News 
Faggian, M., Urbani, M., & Zanotto, L. Proximity: a recipe to break the outbreak. arXiv preprint arXiv:2003.10222. (2020).

4 Ng, A. (2020, 13th April). Tech isn't solution to COVID-19, says Singapore director of contact tracing app. CNet News
About the authors

Ben Morley-John

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Ben Morley-John is the Managing Director of Smash Delta in Sydney. He has spent the last several years working alongside government and enterprise to drive strategy and new capabilities in data, analytics and AI. Major projects include the development of smart cities capability for multiple government departments, digital transformation in television media and human performance analytics for professional sport.

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