Calling on collaboration from tech companies to curb the COVID-19 pandemic

Scientists from i-sense are calling on technology companies to work with researchers and governments to help curb the COVID-19 pandemic by sharing their data in a legal, proportionate, ethical and privacy-preserving manner.

Writing in Nature, the group from UCL, Imperial College London, Chatham House, Diagonal Works and the London School for Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, led by Professor Rachel McKendry (Director of i-sense EPSRC IRC), says that with access to relevant and vital information, technology companies have an important role to play in ensuring patients and populations are protected.

Open data from mobile phones, and digital footprints from web searches and social media, remain largely inaccessible to researchers and governments, however access to this information could be important in public health efforts.

Why is data sharing important to public health in a pandemic?

Data sharing amongst governments and researchers during the COVID-19 pandemic has led to clinical, epidemiological and virological data being swiftly posted online. 

Data from technology companies is largely inaccessible, however, and access to these data could support community surveillance, contact tracing, social mobilisation, health promotion, communication with the public, and evaluation of public health interventions, all key aspects of outbreak management.

The team suggest sharing of data in these unprecedented circumstances will have a positive societal impact.

“Digital trails from web searches and social media could really help us better detect the spread of coronavirus in communities at an early stage, especially where there is no access to testing,” says Prof Rachel McKendry.

These important data sets would allow us to evaluate the real impact of public health interventions, such as social distancing.

Privacy and data sharing during a pandemic

While it is clear there are many benefits to be gained from data sharing, it must happen in a carefully considered way to protect the individual as much as possible.

As a society, we have invested in technology and resources that could be used for social and public benefit. Access to these technologies requires the right privacy and protections to build into other big data sources, including public health.

Co-author, Andrew Eland (Diagonal Works), says: “The utility of this data is well recognised, however the need to resolve the legal and ethical ambiguities is being forced at speed by the pandemic as the needs and benefits of accessing such data become more evident and acceptable to the public.

“If people gave consent to share data through apps they already use, that data can be protected with privacy preserving technologies. It’s an important opportunity for people to share data for social good.”

How can governments and funders support this effort?

“We ask governments and funders to create new centres of digital public health to deploy and evaluate proven innovations,” says Prof McKendry.

By creating new centres in digital public health, governments could provide technologies companies with a safe, protected way of sharing data for the purposes of deploying and evaluating digital public health interventions. 

With access to relevant and vital information, technology companies have a very important role to play ensure we can protect patients and populations.

This is an important time for us all to combine our efforts for social good.

Getting involved

For more information about how you can contribute to this effort, please contact i-sense Director, Prof Rachel McKendry (

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