2020 is, among many other things, the year the world became obsessed with data.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have become collectively fixated on tools that used to be the preserve of epidemiologists, public health officials and statisticians: the mounting tolls of confirmed cases and of deaths, the sharply rising graph lines and the flattening curves, the mysterious “R” rate that will determine whether or not Christmas is cancelled.
Data has also become one of our most powerful weapons against the virus: some form of contact tracing has been implemented in every country that has managed to bring infection under control, whether manual or digital. In the months and years to come, the analysis of ever larger datasets – so-called “Big Data” – will come to further define our responses, and determine our resilience to future crises.
So far, we have barely scratched the surface, says Michael Pietrzkiewicz, electronics engineering technologist at WSP in Alberta, Canada. “The more data you can gather over time, the more accurate it will be,” he says. “If we want to have resilience on-the-fly, we need to be comfortable that the data is correct or we’re not going to react to it. Big data has actually played very little part in our response to COVID, partly because this isn’t an area where enough has been accumulated. What this has actually reflected is how far we are from having a connected world.”
To look at it another way, COVID has given us a glimpse of the enormous potential of data to help us rise to future challenges. One of the most valuable, and rapidly expanding, datasets will come from the “smart” devices, equipped with sensors and network connections, that are being rolled out across buildings and cities. By collecting and aggregating information about the environment and the way we interact with it, these technologies offer a new level of insight that could dramatically improve our ability to foresee and react to events.
Few sectors stand to benefit more than healthcare, a data-rich sector on the cusp of a digital transformation.