Data and the race against pandemics

All of us working or dealing with data have a role to play in using our know-how and available technology to apply data in ways that will benefit humanity and tackle the world’s biggest challenges – the environment, equality, education, health, and safety. We have the power to do extraordinary things with what is embedded in data.

Right now, we are living in uncertain times with the COVID-19 pandemic. Human ingenuity will be a powerful weapon in the fight, and data has the power to enable us to reach our full potential in these circumstances. The answers to complicated questions are all there in the data. We just have to find them, while also respecting the privacy, security, and dignity of patients and healthcare workers.

 It is an enormous responsibility, and many companies and public service organisations are taking on the challenge of fighting this pandemic with data.

Our secret weapon: massive datasets

One of the hallmarks of the effort to combat a viral pandemic is the fight against time as well as the virus. That is why understanding data related to a virus’ structure, spread, and potential effective treatments is so critical. The faster we understand the virus, the faster we can treat patients and develop vaccines to reduce its spread.

The fascinating aspects of the medical and biotech community’s fight against COVID-19 are the advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning that are enabling us to crunch massive amounts of data to find the vital information we need. Scientists at DeepMind have been using its AI learning models to share its understanding of the protein structures of COVID-19, while hospitals in China and South Korea have used AI systems to diagnose coronavirus symptoms, getting the diagnosis more quickly in the face of testing kit shortages.

Fighting pandemics has always depended on careful observation of behavior and meticulous attention to documenting events. Now, instead of depending on a small number of observations, we can use huge datasets to give us an advantage in the war against both time and the virus.

In Singapore, there is significant work underway to collectively help the healthcare professionals treat patients in a more efficient way and give patients access to healthcare quicker to help fight the spread of the virus. The Agency for Science, Technology and Research and Tan Tock Seng Hospital have developed the Fortitude Kit 2.0 testing kit, which is being used in 13 public and private hospitals and labs. The Health Sciences Authority is also working to supply tests quickly to health care institutions, hospitals, medical clinics and laboratories in Singapore. Additionally, telemedicine applications have been on the rise to help healthcare professionals on the front lines.

How data will prevent pandemics in the future

There seems to be no doubt that this virus will change many aspects of our society. Human beings are social creatures, and that won’t — and shouldn’t — change. However, there is a lot of room for technological innovation to eliminate needless transmission of infectious agents.

When healthcare systems are overwhelmed, the front line staff, whose work we are enormously grateful for, are not the only people affected. Workers in back office functions such as claims processing and billing can also suffer the same fate, slowing down the efficient administration of treatment. Blockchain technologies have shown promising progress in streamlining these processes.

Data quality is also essential for understanding how pandemics like COVID-19 spread. Partnerships between data modelling companies and public health organisations are going to be critical in the coming years if we are to understand and stop the transmission of novel viruses. These partnerships have been instigated by the spread of coronaviruses, and it will improve the quality and accuracy of these models over time.

Data is the future, if handled well

Data is an essential tool in the fight against COVID-19, and access to it has proven to be an important way to navigate through these difficult times. Data has the power to unlock potential and lead to great discoveries. The advances in data technology are making the fight against infectious diseases more successful.