The myriad of data sources now available create a real challenge for even the most literate of analysts and researchers, when trying to make sense of the emerging picture of COVID-19, in real time. Against this background, it could be argued that what we now need is greater synthesis of information, where data from multiple sources is combined and refined, to improve clarity and reduce the ambient “noise” that is currently in the system
By Dr. Brian Johnston
Senior Public Health Specialist
London, United Kingdom
Unleashing the True Potential of Data – COVID-19 and Beyond
In many ways data is like sugar. In the correct amounts, it can fuel of our brains, unleash our energies and bring sweetness and happiness to our lives. But too much data can sometimes be difficult to digest and lead to a chronic “decisional diabetes,” where multiple perspectives complicate and hamper effective decision making and the creation of practical solutions.
COVID-19 has underlined and accentuated the potentially toxic effects of data and how, when used inappropriately, it can compromise decision making and generate confusion.
In the early days of the pandemic little was known about the virus, and in the race to answer important questions, data sources quickly sprang up. This was completely understandable, as we had been plunged into the unknown and any form of illumination was welcome. However, a year has now passed since COVID-19 turned our lives upside down and the data landscape has changed radically.
With the advent of mass vaccination, hope has finally entered into the equation. The threat from COVID-19 remains, but perhaps we can now learn some lessons, which will be of benefit in future pandemics and health emergencies.
The need for evidence-based decision making was clearly underlined from the start of the pandemic and this need is still with us. Good quality data, the sugar of human cognition, is absolutely essential for this form of decision making and measures should be taken by everyone to promote it.
The myriad of data sources now available create a real challenge for even the most literate of analysts and researchers, when trying to make sense of the emerging picture of COVID-19, in real time. Against this background, it could be argued that what we now need is greater synthesis of information, where data from multiple sources is combined and refined, to improve clarity and reduce the ambient “noise” that is currently in the system.
We are not seeking “truth,” or even a single version of the truth, but “clarity” and as much as possible, good quality data. In this way, we can facilitate evidence-based decision making, catalyse effective planning and ultimately save lives and resources, through the efficient and timely co-ordination of action, at a local, regional and national level.
At present, there is the real danger that the wide range of data sources on COVID-19 will potentially stifle the response to the pandemic at multiple levels by allowing undigested data to exercise its toxic effects on the bodies (organisations) tasked with responding to the emergency. Letting this state of affairs continue runs the risk that such bodies will suffer from a debilitating “decisional diabetes,” where evidence-based decision making is compromised, effective planning curtailed and practical action hampered.
So, how do we avoid the toxic effects of decisional diabetes?
Well, both communication and co-ordination are required, together with a genuine desire to address the problem at the highest levels of government.
Initiatives promoting the sharing, exchange and discussion of data between professionals, such as the Future NHS Collaboration Platform and websites summarising data for the general public e.g. the official UK Government website for data and insights on Coronavirus (COVID-19) are to be welcomed, but they are only part of the solution.
At a practical level, the formation of a national organisation specifically tasked with receiving health data, analysing, modelling and moulding it into actionable (real world) solutions, would address many of the issues surrounding health data toxicity. Working closely with government departments, this organisation would nevertheless be independent of government. Its mission and duties would be enshrined in law, so that the scope of its remit would be clearly specified and the boundaries of its responsibilities understood.
This “national health institute” would quickly swing into action at times of pandemic or health emergency, but at other times would address health inequalities on an ongoing basis, whilst actively seeking ways to overcome barriers to health and well-being. The organisation could also act as a natural focus for implementing changes to information governance, health technology and the promotion of data science, artificial intelligence and machine learning.
I’m sure that many countries would argue that they already have organisations of this type. But do they in reality? What has COVID-19 taught them?
When the dust has finally settled from the current pandemic, nations will be able to gauge their response to COVID-19 and how their organisations and infrastructure will need to change to meet future health challenges.
The possibilities are endless, with the right data…