How big data is powering Australia’s COVID-19 response

While poring over endless facts and figures about COVID-19 may cause ‘pandemic fatigue’, big data is determining the way governments, in Australia and abroad, are responding to the health and economic threats posed by the virus, writes Steve Singer.

Around the world, governments, scientists, public health officials and bureaucrats are doing battle with a formidable, unseen enemy, using every strategy and weapon at their disposal.

Unknown outside China until 31 December 2019, the COVID-19 virus has catapulted countries, businesses and individuals into crisis mode.

Here in Australia, it’s compelled state governments to rapidly beef up the capacity of their healthcare systems, to enable them to cope with a potential tsunami of coronavirus cases. And it’s forced the federal government to close the borders and shut down industries and services around the nation, in an effort to slow the spread of the disease until such time as a vaccine is found or herd immunity has been achieved safely.


Steve Singer


Using data to make decisions that affect us all

What’s powering the official response to the biggest public health crisis in a century? The answer is data – mountains of it.

On the public health front, crunching numbers on incubation periods, infection and recovery rates, medical resourcing, social distancing measures and a range of other factors has enabled data analysts to develop complex epidemiological models.

These have included an alarming ‘worst case scenario’, developed by Melbourne’s Doherty Institute, which indicated Australia would need 35,000 intensive care beds a day, should 23 million Australians – around 90 per cent of the population – become infected with the virus.

Other scenarios have explored the impact implementing measures to quell the transmission of the virus, including self-isolation, quarantine and social distancing, is likely to have on the health system’s capacity to cope, during the upcoming months.

Over in the Treasury Department, we’ve seen the release of a series of multi-billion-dollar stimulus and welfare programs, aimed at cushioning the extraordinary damage the pandemic, and the shutdown measures it has initiated, are having on businesses and workers.

Australian Tax Office, Centrelink and Treasury data has been used to inform the economic modelling which underpins these programs. Data from these agencies will continue to be used as the crisis unfolds, to gauge how effectively the measures are mitigating the impact of the virus, on individuals, businesses and the economy at large.

Meanwhile, around the world, we’re seeing other organisations and businesses utilising big data to wage war on the virus. They include IT behemoth Google, which is pitching in to provide the data analytics power needed to help scientists understand more about COVID-19 itself. The company’s Deep Mind Artificial Intelligence Unit has been using AI modelling and machine learning to try to determine the protein structure of the virus; information that will help in the push to develop more effective treatments and, ultimately, a vaccine.

The data driven decision making drive

After the coronavirus crisis has passed, as it inevitably will, the Australian government’s very public display of data driven decision making may act as a prompt for local organisations and businesses which have yet to embrace the practice.

Around the world, data analysis has become seriously big business – IDC forecasts suggest revenues for big data and business analytics solutions will reach $274.3 billion by 2022 – and market watchers believe organisations which don’t embrace the practice will struggle to stay competitive and relevant.

“If your business isn’t data driven in five years, you’re not going to have a business,” was the blunt warning from the Institute of Analytics Professionals of Australia managing director Annette Slunjski in December 2018.

“We’re not going to be in the fourth industrial revolution unless we can start harvesting the data we have and start making better decisions,” Slunjski told a forum to discuss the benefits data can deliver and the challenges Australia faced in capitalising on its potential.

While big businesses are cognisant of the benefits and have embedded data analytics across the enterprise, many small and medium sized organisations have yet to find compelling rationales for doing so. Perhaps the Australian government has given them an exemplar?

Doing more with data in a post-pandemic world

The 2020 coronavirus pandemic will go down in the annals as a once-in-a-century event, comparable in size and severity to the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918 which infected around a quarter of the world’s population.

Whither the data modellers after the threat recedes? Arguably, their role will be no less critical, as collective focus shifts from management of the COVID-19 response to the prevention of future outbreaks. Ongoing partnerships between data modellers and public health organisations, in Australia and around the world, will be key to determining how that is best done. As an essential ingredient for greater understanding and better decision making, data’s role at the heart of infectious diseases management seems assured.

*Steve Singer is ANZ Country Manager at Talend

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