Data Conference 2020: The world must work together

Linking data has been crucial in getting help to those who need it most in Scotland during the pandemic, but this global problem will need a global solution, David Lee and Nick Drainey hear.

Global data and its links are crucial in the fight against Covid-19.
Global data and its links are crucial in the fight against Covid-19.

National Clinical Director for Scotland Jason Leitch is pleased by the way data has been shared and analysed across the country’s public sector during the pandemic, but says that a global focus is vital to get us out of the other side.

Leitch told The Scotsman’s Doing Data Together conference: “This is a global challenge and we need to think globally.

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“New Zealand can get to zero but cannot stay at zero forever unless the world manages this together.

“Data and the linkages of data are absolutely crucial in that fight – then science, therapeutics, vaccinations and better testing play in to get us out the other end.”

He told a panel session on Data, Covid-19 and Public Services: “The director general of the World Health Organisation said something very interesting: we need to vaccinate some people in all countries before we vaccinate all people in some countries.”

Leitch said that Scotland was quick to react when using data in the battle against Covid-19. Real-time statistical information was discussed, shared and interpreted on a daily basis, and was also made accessible for public consumption.

He added: “The Public Health Scotland dashboard now includes pretty much every piece of data that we have about Covid rates. The next level is how you share and articulate that to a population.

“This is not diabetes – a disease that just affects you – this is a disease where data becomes crucial for communication.

“When you are taking away people’s personal liberties, potentially putting their businesses at risk [or] putting their children at risk from no education, you better be as open and transparent as can be about why you are making those choices.”

Leitch said that one of the highlights of the crisis was how quickly the NHS had adapted.

He said: “We used to do 300 virtual consultations a week in Scotland, we now do nearly 50,000. You can’t do that without data and digital coming together, and it is actually saving people’s lives – making lives better.

“We tried for three years to get it rolled out and the pandemic caused it to be rolled out.”

Gillian Docherty, chief executive of innovation centre The Data Lab, said there had been “huge strides” made during the crisis, when “levels of collaboration were higher” than she had ever seen.

She added: “That bodes well for the country’s use of data and other techniques in future to improve the lives of all of us.”

Dr Kenneth Meechan, head of information and data protection officer at Glasgow City Council, said local authorities had to work quickly with a range of partners: “When lockdown started, particularly with the shielding group of the clinically high risk, there was a requirement to provide additional support.”

Councils had to liaise with national bodies about those at risk and in need of medication, as well as working with third-sector organisations to provide wraparound support such as food packages.

Meechan said: “We didn’t throw the rule book out, but moved really quickly to put governance around information flows. It is the sort of development in technology terms which takes months or years but it was done in weeks.

“We were able to provide a unified local authority response rather than expecting Public Health Scotland to negotiate

32 times over.

“We are in a good place now; we are moving to formalising our engagement with third-sector partners as well.”

Gemma Cassells, public sector lead at the Data-Driven Innovation initiative, said: “Highlighting the ability of data to help make decisions across the entire public sector has been shown by this pandemic. It is not just health and social care, it is how we functionally operate all of our services – every service being delivered is being reassessed about how we can use data more effectively.”

Rowan Conway, from the Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose at University College London, highlighted the enormous progress made in the speed and efficiency and prioritisation of data.

But she went on to suggest that the crisis could be viewed as a “learning pandemic”.

Conway said: “We also need to recognise that we shouldn’t become pathologically obsessed with being fast.

“We need some breathing space to get to that endemic condition where we are all operating like that as business as usual.”

‘We must share data in a way that is effective, ethical and collaborative’

The Scottish Government is committed to sharing data “ethically and effectively” and has done so through the pandemic to positive effect, according to the minister with responsibility for digital issues.

Ben Macpherson MSP said the Covid-19 Data and Innovation Network, a coalition of public bodies and academic institutions, was convened to gather “robust and responsive evidence to make real-time, informed decisions”.

He said examples of the practical use of data during the pandemic included early warning of Covid-19 clusters, identifying specific risk factors for the virus and demonstrating impacts on health and social care inequalities.

Macpherson said there was a vision to use Scotland’s data to its full potential – driving innovation, improving public services and unlocking economic value, to save time, money and lives.

He said: “We [also]want safe, responsible and secure use of data We must address the opportunities and challenges together, and share data in a way that is effective, ethical and collaborative, to realise the power for good.”

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