The pandemic urges us to rethink our stance on data

June 25, 2020

Big data is watching you. Photo by @ev on Unsplash.

The current pandemic – the first of the algorithmic age – has not only shown the vulnerabilities of our social, economic and health systems, it has also revealed how grossly inadequate the mechanisms, institutions and governance systems are that we rely upon to handle our data. Now is the time to rethink how we approach data.


There has been a proliferation of data amidst the pandemic.

As governments struggle to understand the problem and how to respond, solutions using data have boomed – from contact tracing mobile apps that collect and share data about our whereabouts or proximity to others, to data dashboards using location data from mobile phone apps and cell towers.

While these solutions could offer vital support, they are no panacea and hide a number of caveats that have been there all along.

The current crisis raises many of the big questions of the digital age that have long been neglected and for which we need to find answers if we want to uncover and utilize the true value of data, beyond its commercial use.

There are no easy answers given the complexity of the problems at hand, but the following three issues need to be addressed if we want to make progress towards fair, inclusive and just data ecosystems.

Rethinking individual consent 

Individual consent, the standard approach to data processing in the digital space, puts the burden on the individual user to make an informed decision on whether they agree to their data being collected and used. Understanding the terms of use that come along with it is nearly impossible for most of us. Our consent will in many cases impact not only us personally but also others, especially when the data is analyzed using artificial intelligence to infer patterns about individuals and groups.

What’s more, as is the case with DNA data for instance, an individual’s decision to share their own personal data can also reveal information about people around them, including family members, even those that haven’t been born yet.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, experts were already suggesting that the individual consent model for handling personal data doesn’t work anymore. However, now that we’re facing potentially the largest global effort in history of collecting highly sensitive data and in a time where our individual actions have significant collective consequences, it is suddenly clear that individual consent is ill-suited as a mechanism to handle personal data.

We need to look beyond individual consent. Recognizing our interdependence and interconnectedness in the data collected, analyzed and shared about us, we should think about community consent as a collective decision-making mechanism or consent proxies that make decisions on our behalf.

Double exposure of global Coronavirus COVID-19 cases (March 17, 2020). Photo: Brian McGowan, Unsplash.

Rethinking the data economy

It is no secret that a major share of the digital data we constantly generate is held by a few private sector companies who also have the technology to monetize it.

These data monopolies result in a high dependency not only for us as individuals but also for governments in times when access to accurate and real-time data is much needed for swift and informed action. 

While we’ve seen some successful attempts by the UN and others to gain access to social media and telecom data held by companies to advance development, we have largely failed to establish viable governance and institutional structures "that would allow us to harness data responsibly to halt or at least limit this pandemic”.

What if we began to reimagine the data economy as we know it? This could mean looking at the large-scale application of mechanisms like data commons, bottom-up data trusts and data cooperatives to democratize data control, access and use. These data governance and sharing models could give us better control over our data while simultaneously enabling the use of data for public value creation, including the fight against global pandemics like Covid-19.

We know that we need new data institutions and a new understanding of data that emphasizes its public value and not just its economic potential. There is no shortage of proposals, but actionable frameworks and proven models are few and far between. 

Rethinking data investments

The investments in data that we’re seeing now reflect a longer-term trend in the wider data innovation space. Many initiatives are designed to reveal insights about an issue, e.g. how people move, for a single decision-maker to take top-down action.

What if we instead tried to find existing solutions contained in the large amounts of data, including successful practices in handling the pandemic? Moving forward, we should invest in initiatives that rely on big, thick and rich data collected both online and offline to learn about local solutions that consider contextual realities in a situation where we have very little knowledge about what works and what doesn’t.

We need to rethink our investments and view the current crisis not just as an opportunity to begin building better and more inclusive informational infrastructures that benefit the many, but also put a much greater emphasis on using data for learning as well as finding and scaling local solutions and innovations.


Covid-19 has uncovered the cracks in our data ecosystems. Instead of fixing them, let’s reimagine and build the mechanisms, institutions and governance systems we need to uncover and utilize the true value of data.  The ‘great reset’  can shift us towards a fundamental change in the ways we view and handle data.