Coronavirus shows how badly we need consensus on collective data rights and needs

Blogpost by Ania Calderon: “The rapid spread of this disease is exposing fault lines in our political and social balance — most visibly in the lack of protection for the poorest or investment in healthcare systems. It’s also forcing us to think about how we can work across jurisdictions and political contexts to foster better collaboration, build trust in institutions, and save lives.

As we said recently in a call for Open COVID-19 Data, governments need data from other countries to model and flatten the curve, but there is little consistency in how they gather it. Meanwhile, the consequences of different approaches show the balance required in effectively implementing open data policies. For example, Singapore has published detailed personal data about every coronavirus patient, including where they work and live and whether they had contact with others. This helped the city-state keep its infection and death rates extremely low in the early stages of the epidemic, but also led to proportionality concerns as people might be targeted and harmed.

Overall, few governments are publishing the information on which they are basing these huge decisions. This makes it hard to collaborate, scrutinise, and build trust. For example, the models can only be as good as the data that feed them, and we need to understand their limitations. Opening up the data and the source code behind them would give citizens confidence that officials were making decisions in the public’s interest rather than their political ones. It would also foster the international joined-up action needed to meet this challenge. And it would allow non-state actors into the process to plug gaps and deliver and scale effective solutions quickly.

At the same time, legitimate concerns have been raised about how this data is used, both now and in the future.

As we say in our strategy, openness needs to be balanced with both individual and collective data rights, and policies need to account for context.

People may be ok to give up some of their privacy — like having their movements tracked by government smartphone apps — if that can help combat a global health crisis, but that would seem an unthinkable invasion of privacy to many in less exceptional times. We rightly worry how this data might be used later on, and by whom. Which shows that data systems need to be able to respond to changing times, while holding fundamental human rights and civil liberties in check.

As with so many things, this crisis is forcing the world to question orthodoxies around individual and collective data rights and needs. It shines a light on policies and approaches which might help avoid future disasters and build a fairer, healthier, more collaborative society overall….(More)”.