Making data for good better

Article by Caroline Buckee, Satchit Balsari, and Andrew Schroeder: “…Despite the long standing excitement about the potential for digital tools, Big Data and AI to transform our lives, these innovations–with some exceptions–have so far had little impact on the greatest public health emergency of our time.

Attempts to use digital data streams to rapidly produce public health insights that were not only relevant for local contexts in cities and countries around the world, but also available to decision makers who needed them, exposed enormous gaps across the translational pipeline. The insights from novel data streams which could help drive precise, impactful health programs, and bring effective aid to communities, found limited use among public health and emergency response systems. We share here our experience from the COVID-19 Mobility Data Network (CMDN), now Crisis Ready (, a global collaboration of researchers, mostly infectious disease epidemiologists and data scientists, who served as trusted intermediaries between technology companies willing to share vast amounts of digital data, and policy makers, struggling to incorporate insights from these novel data streams into their decision making. Through our experience with the Network, and using human mobility data as an illustrative example, we recognize three sets of barriers to the successful application of large digital datasets for public good.

First, in the absence of pre-established working relationships with technology companies and data brokers, the data remain primarily confined within private circuits of ownership and control. During the pandemic, data sharing agreements between large technology companies and researchers were hastily cobbled together, often without the right kind of domain expertise in the mix. Second, the lack of standardization, interoperability and information on the uncertainty and biases associated with these data, necessitated complex analytical processing by highly specialized domain experts. And finally, local public health departments, understandably unfamiliar with these novel data streams, had neither the bandwidth nor the expertise to sift noise from signal. Ultimately, most efforts did not yield consistently useful information for decision making, particularly in low resource settings, where capacity limitations in the public sector are most acute…(More)”.