How long should Americans isolate at home? Who should go back to work or school? How many feet apart should we stand?

In a health emergency like the COVID-19 pandemic that affects virtually everyone, virtually everyone has an opinion. What would be a whole lot more useful right now—and in outbreaks to come—are more facts and data. The lack of widespread testing, along with other important contextualizing information, continues to hamper the ability of societies and governments to make informed decisions to protect health and guide the economy.

In the U.S., numerous health experts have criticized the shortage of COVID-19 testing, as well as the dearth of additional data about the path of the disease, including relevant detail about who is infected and their eventual health outcomes. But the coronavirus crisis reveals a need—and opportunity—to develop new data analytics tools that capitalize on technology like smartphones and the internet.

At this point in the age of algorithms for everything from retail sales to dating, no one can doubt the potential of technology to collect and crunch immense amounts of information about who we are and what we do. And we’re seeing some action in the area. For example, the World Health Organization and large tech companies including Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter are engaged in a coronavirus “hackathon” to develop technologies to address the health crisis.

The Rockefeller Foundation recently announced a commitment of $20 million for COVID-19 response efforts. Like giving from many funders in the U.S., some of the grant money will address the immediate needs of American workers, families and vulnerable communities around the world. A more unique and far-ranging goal described in the announcement is to fund the development of better data-science tools for COVID-19, such as a tracking and management system.

Data-Driven Public Health

The Rockefeller Foundation says it will support the development of new technologies to accelerate current and future pandemic preparedness and response capabilities around the world. Such data-driven public health innovations, the funder says, would enable countries to respond better to the current outbreak and build capacity to identify and mitigate the spread of disease in future public health emergencies. The foundation envisions tools “geared toward rapid tracking and predicting the direction of a pandemic” and “to help civil society and governments track how they are responding and managing their response.” Anyone who has been following the news for the last few months understands the need for such capabilities.

“We are still dealing with these pandemics in a 20th-century way, using blunt instruments such as social distancing, that might have been appropriate 100 years ago,” said Naveen Rao, MD, senior vice president of the health initiative at the Rockefeller Foundation. “Twenty-first-century solutions like predictive analytics are ruling so many other aspects of our lives. You go to a village in India or Africa, and the farmer has a smartphone with a weather-forecast app that tells him when to harvest and an app to sell his produce. But with the coronavirus, we’re still dealing with social distancing and handwashing.”

Rockefeller launched its program development in data-driven tools about a year ago. “Our feeling is that public health needs to be brought into the 21st century," said Rao. The effort could put tools into the hands of healthcare and other workers, for example, and might include real-time tracking of supply chains, human resources, as well as cases of disease outbreaks.

Although, as Rao says, the coronavirus pandemic has brought the need for data-science solutions in public health into particularly sharp and specific focus, other funders and tech leaders have recognized the potential. 

A Growing Priority for Global Health Funders

For example, the Gates Foundation, perhaps more disposed than most funders to technological innovation, has funded predictive analytics applications for a number of health-related areas over the years, more recently for such goals as the improvement of clinical trials and assessing the risk of developmental delays in children. Also, as previously reported in Inside Philanthropy, Gates has invested a total of $271 million in the Child Health and Mortality Prevention Surveillance (CHAMPS) network to analyze high child mortality rates in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Last year, Wellcome Trust invested £75 million in a five-year program on data for science and health, including artificial intelligence technologies. The Clinton Foundation and the U.K.-based Health Foundation also invest in analytics and data-driven health tech solutions. And, as we’ve reported, Bloomberg Philanthropies has been engaged in a big effort over recent years to support better data collection about health, and especially the causes of death, in developing countries.

Now, these and other funders need to consider how all these investments can inform and support urgent new work to strengthen the global response to COVID-19, as well as efforts to prepare for future pandemics.

Development of public-health data-science tools will necessarily require careful consideration of data security and privacy, said Rao. It will also require partnering with the public and private sectors—with philanthropy partners potentially providing the trusted platform to glue the three sides together successfully.

Related: “Death Does Not Wait.” Top Funders Make Data a Priority in Achieving Global Health Equity

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