Data-driven engineering is not only the beating heart of civilisation—it is the activity that will ultimately allow us to overcome Covid-19by John Browne / June 15, 2020 / Leave a comment
Data is often described as the “new oil.” Having spent my career dealing with both, I have always been sceptical of the comparison. But they do share one important property: their ability to empower people to get things done. Today it is data, rather than oil, that drives progress in engineering, enabling us to create the tools and systems that allow us to shape our worlds.
Data-driven engineering is not only the beating heart of civilisation—it is the activity that will ultimately allow us to overcome Covid-19. Scientists and doctors will gather data on the virus itself and how our bodies respond to it, but it is engineering that must transform those insights into safe and effective therapies and vaccines that can be delivered at scale.
As we wait patiently for those crucial medical innovations, it is imperative that we use data right now in a different way: to engineer ways to break the virus’s chains of transmission. As lockdowns are eased, we need to switch from blanket, population-wide measures to a more focused approach that can detect new clusters of infection and stop them growing. Some of the data needed to achieve this ambition are about as intimate as can be: where we’ve been, who we’ve seen, how close we came and how long we stayed there.
It should come as no surprise that people are wary about sharing this data. They see huge technology companies using personal data to generate profit, enabling increasingly precise targeting of everything from products to political parties. And they also see abuse of personal data by governments, with facial recognition systems allegedly being used to oppress minority populations in China and elsewhere.
But gathering and collating personal information can yield powerful insights with immense utility in public health and beyond. When I was writing my latest book, Make, Think, Imagine: The Future of Civilisation I spoke to Nigel Shadbolt, co-founder and chairman of the Open Data Institute, who believes that “the benefit that accrues from my data being amalgamated with many other people’s to provide insights about general conditions is an inarguable thing…it’s very odd that the narrative isn’t…