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Need for open data, harmonisation never more urgent

Open data, data mining and in-depth data analysis could prove to be invaluable tools in the COVID-19 fight, and in the ones that may still come.
Read time 4min 40sec

The UK was the first western country to license a vaccine against COVID-19, paving the way for mass immunisation via the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, beginning with those most at risk. This particular vaccine has been shown to have 95% efficacy in its final trials.

The rollout of this vaccine, only one of many being developed, really is tremendous news. However, I wonder how much quicker things would be moving if there was a global harmonisation for things like vaccine regulation? And if, worldwide, there was a greater adoption of open data.

As vociferously proven many times over, when countries, industries, businesses and people pool their data, and that data is mined as a whole, the insights are groundbreaking.

Globally, China, Russia and the United Arab Emirates began administering vaccines before the conclusion of clinical trials. The US Food and Drug Administration needed longer to make its decision on the same Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, along with the regulatory agencies of Australia, the European Union and Switzerland.

For an infectious disease that is having such a massive and devastating impact on every single country in the world, the uncoordinated and patchwork of approvals processes has truly brought to the fore a long-standing question about how to accelerate harmonisation in vaccine regulation.

Surely, if the appropriate organisations and specialists worldwide were analysing ALL the data available on a common enemy, regulators and scientists could more easily compare their findings and analyses with those of others. The decisions based on that collaborative exercise would not only be more robust, but also be seen to be more robust.

Open data could prove to be an invaluable tool in that fight, and in the ones that may still come. 

At its heart, open data is about opening the door to ALL available information to a group of diverse users, which includes researchers, practitioners, journalists, application developers, entrepreneurs and other stakeholders who will then synthesise the data in novel ways to develop new insights and applications. 

When countries, industries, businesses and people pool their data, and that data is mined as a whole, the insights are groundbreaking.

Right at the beginning of the pandemic, various countries and organisations used open data sources to create COVID-19 exposure tracking apps, global and local visualisations of infection rates, etc. This became an extremely powerful educational tool, but also allowed governments to make rapid and lifesaving decisions.

Knowing when to close the borders, knowing what areas are at greatest risk, knowing the flow of any part of the population that is migratory – these were all tools that people, business and governments harnessed and used to try and put the most basic steps in place to protect their people and populations.

Visually, the general population could access the gravely beautiful visualisations and actually ‘see’ the invisible enemy make its way around the world, and their country/province.

All these swift response tools were partially possible due to various layers of open data availability. App developers could harness the power of free to use data, and empower a population to make, hopefully, wiser decisions.

Scientists could harness the availability of global movement, infection rates, population spread and symptom information to better advise government and devise the best strategy, at that time, with the available information.

How much more powerful would all of that have been if there had been an already harmonised vaccination strategy in place to fast-track global information – whether it be scientific knowledge, population movement or symptom exposure.

COVID-19 took the entire world by surprise. Never in our wildest dreams (well, maybe in the dreams of Hollywood producers/writers) could we have foreseen a global devastation of this magnitude, in our lifetime.

Perhaps we were lucky, in that we had advanced enough as a civilisation to have procedures and policies already in place to help us make better decisions.

But now, we have a unique opportunity to learn from our mistakes. Or maybe a better way of looking at it is to say we need to learn from the things we took for granted.

Nature: How magnificent, powerful and devastating it can be. Yes, it sustains us. But we need it a whole lot more than it needs us. Perhaps we should respect it more.

Data: How global access to all available information, in the hands of the right people, could speed up response times, vaccination development and approvals, collaborations on lifesaving machinery based on specific symptoms, aftercare requirements, long-term symptoms and problems, etc.

Harmonisation: If there is one thing that COVID-19 has taught me is that we are stronger together. We are stronger as part of the whole. I don’t want it on my soul, that I infected another, however inadvertently. If we extrapolate that to a worldwide level – the knowledge and advances that are made here or overseas or wherever, should be available to all. Especially in the face of an enemy that does not care who it decimates.

Be safe. Wear your mask. Stay home. Care for others as you would care for yourself. 

Jessie Rudd

Technical business analyst at PBT Group

Jessie Rudd is a technical business analyst at PBT Group, a position she has held since 2011. In this role, she is responsible for combining data analysis assignments and researching new technologies in this space. Rudd holds training in IT (computer management) and has been exposed to a number of industries over the past 10 years, including BI, financial services, retail, market research, as well as corporate functions such as call centres, human resources and IT. This broad experience allows her to grasp the complexity attached to converting data into intelligence. Rudd has a passion for investigating new technologies and making others aware of them, as well as finding the most efficient tools for successfully undertaking a required task.

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