Attempting to track and mitigate the impacts of a global pandemic is proving to be like looking for the proverbial needle in a stack of other needles. Fortunately, we have made huge strides recently in data identification, collection and integration and new tools and processes (including Artificial Intelligence) have improved the speed and precision needed to reveal the critical insights. Thanks to these technological innovations, data analytics is playing a pivotal role in mankind’s battle against COVID-19.
Some memorable examples of these valuable data driven insights:
These efforts are admirable because they manage to provide insights that help people, without sacrificing the privacy of the individual. The Google search trends are aggregated by region, so it is impossible to trace a specific individual’s searches. The contact tracing app’s location information remains in each individual smartphone, rather than being uploaded to a central server where it might be used to violate citizens’ privacy.
In the heat of the battle against COVID-19, not all technology solutions have been so considerate of individual privacy. For example:
As mankind mobilizes to overcome a common threat, it is wonderful to see how much computer science in general, and data analytics in particular, has contributed to the fight. In the face of a global pandemic and unprecedented, life impacting challenges, it is all too easy to view data privacy as a luxury. However, we must be aware of the danger in such emergency concessions, lest they become the new normal. History shows that citizens’ rights, once ceded, are very difficult to restore. When there are privacy-preserving alternatives, like the Bluetooth-based local storage for contact tracing, they should be preferred over more sweeping privacy-threatening options. When there is no other option, citizens need to understand how the collected data will be protected from abuse, and when the emergency privacy exception will expire.
These same guidelines apply to companies. Enterprises that were well on their way to digital transformation before COVID-19 should see little disruption in the productivity of their employees, and little deterioration in their ability to communicate with their customers. Organizations that were behind the curve before the pandemic now find themselves rushing to set up efficient digital communication channels with their employees and their customers. But, under this pressure to update quickly, they are vulnerable to data privacy mistakes that could go on to sink their business. For example, a company that accidentally exposes its customers’ data to hackers no longer has a temporary COVID-19 problem that will pass when the virus passes; they have a much longer-lasting problem of regaining customer trust.
Similarly, some companies already had a well-defined data process and architecture in place, with the ability to automatically ingest data globally, cleanse the data at scale using Machine Learning–based tools, and then monitor, measure, adjust and reassess in near real time. Organizations that are now trying to improvise these processes on-the-fly so they can function in the new business reality, face the danger of instituting processes, and creating corporate risk, that could cripple them and their growth prospects.
Companies that need to improvise their data access, policies or architecture to cope with COVID-19 should proceed with caution, and seek advice from data experts first. If not, their short-term data problem could become a more long-term corporate viability problem.