Data collaboratives and the COVID-19 pandemic: an interview with Alberto Alemanno

Alberto Alemanno is an academic, author and political activist. He is Professor of EU Law at HEC Paris and is a regular contributor to Bloomberg, Politico Europe and Le Monde, among others. Alemanno is also the founder of ‘The Good Lobby’, a civic start-up committed to equalising political power and influence. Professor Alemanno has kindly agreed to talk to us about the COVID-19 pandemic and how data could be used to prevent the spread of the virus. 

You call for the establishment of data collaboratives (i.e. public/private partnerships for the sharing of data in times of crisis). Could you briefly explain how these would help decision makers deal with the COVID-19 pandemic? 

The response to COVID-19 has more to do with a Middle Age containment solution than to a 2020 set of data driven, high tech era. Despite the unprecedented wealth of data collected daily, we have not been able to leverage on them to accelerate our understanding and action to counter COVID-19. As a result, we are not only failing to save lives but also imposing highly restrictive measures on more than 200 million Europeans (more to come).

The current COVID-19 pandemic has not only shown vulnerabilities in our public health systems but has also made visible our failure to re-use data between the public and private sectors — what we call data collaboratives — to inform decision makers how to fight dynamic threats like the novel Coronavirus.

Despite the unprecedented wealth of data collected daily, we have not been able to leverage on them to accelerate our understanding and action to counter COVID-19. We have known for years that the re-use of aggregated and anonymized data — including from telecommunications, social media, and satellite feeds — can improve traditional models for tracking disease propagation. Telecommunications data has, for instance, been re-used to support the response to Ebola in Africa (Orange) and swine flu in Mexico (Telefónica). Social media data has been re-used to understand public perceptions around Zika in Brazil (Facebook). Satellite data has been used to track seasonal measles in Niger using night-time lights. Geospatial data has similarly supported malaria surveillance and eradication efforts in Sub-Saharan Africa. In general, many infectious diseases have been monitored using mobile phones and mobility. The potential and realized contributions of these and other data collaboratives reveal that the supply of and demand for data and data expertise are widely dispersed.

What, if any, are the legal barriers that would difficult the establishment of data collaboratives? 

While virtually every organisation today, including small companies or grassroots movements, is a data entity, only a few of them (generally in the private sector) have collected vast amounts of data (be it personal or non-personal) and acquired a unique capability to make sense of such information. As a result, most of this much-prized data is in the hands of businesses, not of public authorities, with the latter lagging behind in embracing the power of data to inform their daily policies and service-delivery actions.

Hence the challenge — entrusted by the European Commission to the B2G expert group for which I’ve served as rapporteur — to explore the creation of an enabling environment for privately held data to be shared with (or at least be accessible to) public authorities in complying with their public-interest missions.

Overall, an entangled set of regulatory, economic, organisational, technical, social and ethical risks may dissuade potential partners from (or at least do not incentivise) entering into data-sharing collaborations. Those risks manifest themselves all along the data life cycle.

Which factors are impeding the establishment of data collaboratives? Is it companies’ unwillingness to share data? Is it a general weariness of the ethical consequences implied by the use of aggregated data? 

Several economic barriers, such as a lack of incentives to contribute to the public interest, high costs to enter into a B2G data- sharing collaboration and, in certain cases, monopolistic data pricing, hinder the emergence of B2G data sharing. Moreover, access to private-sector data for public-interest purposes is currently governed by a combination of national laws, some EU sectoral legislation as well as contractual arrangements. As a result, there is an increasingly fragmented landscape between and within Member States, as well as between and within sectors.

Given these circumstances, the EU is failing to reap the full potential of B2G data sharing. While some ad hoc collaborations exist and begin to emerge they are far from the critics’ mass of initiatives needed to make a difference. In the absence of a mature B2G ecosystem, most of the efforts focus on getting the supply-side ready (e.g. by developing data-sharing models, e-risking data sharing or reskilling personnel) for B2G data sharing, but omit the need to sensitise and prepare the demand side (the public authorities). More critically, at a time in which reputation-based mechanisms transcend the mere financial rating and venture into state-driven ‘social credit’ scoring, the role that citizens play in the data-sharing equation remains limited and ancillary to most of the solutions at stake.

How would these data collaboratives be set up in practice? Should private companies receive compensation for the sharing of their data? Should these partnerships be voluntary? 

B2G data sharing offers great flexibility to both parties to the collaboration. As such, it can entail a mere one-off collaboration or a longer-term partnership with potentially different monetary and non-monetary compensation modalities.  Depending on the public interest potential, impact and overall emergency, the compensation level might be inexistent, low or even market price.

At the same time, B2G data sharing goes beyond reporting obligations per se, insofar as it provides additional help to public-sector bodies in their task of ensuring general welfare and tackling major societal challenges, without however entailing the constraints related to public procurement.

Clearly, the use of aggregated data can greatly benefit the public good. At the same time, we know that data is a resource that is essentially produced by consumers through their behaviour patterns. As such, should private/public data partnerships merely be explored for the purpose of managing pandemics and other large-scale crises? Or, on the other hand, is the COVID-19 outbreak not a unique opportunity to consider a more ambitious future where aggregated data becomes an effective tool at the service of consumers and the improvement of society?

COVID-19 like any other emergencies has the merit of suddenly making observable the many opportunities we are missing due to our inability as a society to foster a B2G data market. Data in general, and privately held data in particular, has a high potential to serve the general public interest by informing decision — making, providing for new scientific insights and resolving policy issues, thus enabling more — targeted interventions and improving public-service delivery.

The hope is that by following some of this expert advice the EU might become a global leader in fostering not only a market for B2G data access, but also a sensible, inclusive and participatory data culture through a set of viable, practicable and scalable welfare-enhancing solutions. Only a more cautious, humble and humanised approach to the unprecedented amount of data we produce and collect every day may pave the way for a future in which it is the human factor that defines our daily life experiences.