How sharing data is helping fight the spread of Covid-19 in the UK

Data is playing an increasingly important role in helping to tackle some of the world’s greatest challenges, including the Covid-19 pandemic.

In March, shortly after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak to be a pandemic, London went into lockdown. In a city of over 9 million people, authorities urgently needed to understand citizens’ levels of activity in order to craft an approach to controlling the spread.

At The Alan Turing Institute – the U.K.’s national center for data science and artificial intelligence – a study monitoring air quality in the capital was rapidly repositioned.

Working with the London Data Commission and City Hall, The Alan Turing Institute launched a new project, codenamed Odysseus, to gather vital behavioral information from existing open datasets – supporting London authorities during lockdown and with planning once lockdown was lifted. It did this by repurposing the infrastructure of the air quality study to measure the city’s busyness and the public response to government interventions.

London has a number of open datasets that the Project Odysseus team, with half a dozen data engineers, was able to access, such as traffic-monitoring video from the city’s transport authority as well as weather and socioeconomic data.

The team also used those available datasets to create derivative data – for instance, they employed raw camera data to derive datasets of the density of moving objects, both humans and vehicles, and dug in to find more detailed information about social distancing.

“The idea was really to try and identify synergies between all of these datasets, and exploit those to get more information than perhaps just looking at one single dataset,” says Mark Girolami, Programme Director for Data-Centric Engineering at The Alan Turing Institute.

quote box

Girolami believes the speed at which Odysseus was deployed was only possible because of the cloud-based infrastructure that had already been built as part of Microsoft’s ongoing support of research at the institute.

[READ MORE: What do we mean by open data and data collaboration?]

He underlines the importance of the fact that the data, and the Azure cloud infrastructure to capitalize on it, had been utilized for the air quality project. “But also the statistical machine learning, AI infrastructure and know-how was all in place – and being able to exploit that data in a time of need really gave us that agility.”

It’s a mark of the success of the project – and the scope of impact that data-driven analysis and open data can offer – that several other cities, both in the U.K. and internationally, have expressed interest in adopting the same approach as Girolami’s team.

Global partnerships for complex problems

It’s one of several partnerships in which Microsoft is invested as part of its Open Data Campaign, launched in April 2020 to help close the data divide and tackle pressing societal issues, including the educational impact of Covid restrictions.

Microsoft is partnering with the Open Data Institute (ODI) to look at the impact of digital access and Covid-19 on education. Since the pandemic began, more than 1.6 billion children have seen their studies disrupted, with many falling behind because of a lack of access to the internet.

“Education is so crucial to everyone’s futures, both on an individual level and at a macro level,” says Tara Lee, the project’s lead at the ODI. “For countries, if you have a generation that has had less beneficial, less good-quality education, as a result of what has happened, it’s going to affect that country’s economy for years to come.”

[READ MORE: 4 ways sharing data is improving our world]

In November, the partnership launched an Education Open Data Challenge to help governments, policymakers, nonprofits and organizations around the world serve students more effectively.

Participants will benefit from data opened especially for this challenge by Microsoft and BroadbandNow, including differentially private broadband data as well as learning tools from both Microsoft and the ODI. Their mission? Understand the impact of digital access and Covid-19 on young people’s education and find innovative ways to improve the digital playing field.

The challenge has seen interest from more than 100 people from 25 countries, including the U.S. and the U.K. It’s an encouraging sign for the project team members, who recognize the range of different challenges across geographies.

What’s notable in the work that both The Alan Turing Institute and the ODI are undertaking is the range of skill sets involved. People including data scientists, policymakers, mathematicians and teachers play a part.

“Diversity is important in terms of experience, but it’s also important in terms of how people think,” says Tara Lee. “We don’t want everyone to come to the same solution. What we want are people who think in different ways and will come at the problem from different angles.”

Planning for the future

In London, the outputs from Project Odysseus are already providing crucial insights on public behavior and commercial impact – such as supporting better public health by giving planners early warning of any “unsafe” behavioral changes that will likely lead to an increase in cases. The data has also helped to track footfall in commercial areas, in a bid to balance economic sustainability with a safe, appropriately distanced level of activity.

The announcement of successful vaccine trials and simultaneous new restrictions in countries around the world, including the U.S. and the U.K., means the use of data to understand civic behavior is vitally important in balancing public health with economic and educational outcomes as we enter what could be the final stretch of the Covid-19 battle.

[READ MORE: Can data help speed our recovery from Covid? Microsoft and the WHO hope so]

Mark Girolami’s team now has data going back to March 2020, which will be invaluable for future public planning.

“We could test those changes and patterns in real time,” he says. “But we can also do retrospective studies as well, which will be really important once the dust settles, to really start asking some of the more complex questions about how people behave in a crisis situation, how people react to government saying, ‘Please do X, Y and Z.’ So this data will be a great resource for retrospective studies of social behavior.”

Covid-19 has changed the way we behave and forced us to adapt how we travel, shop, socialize and learn. Nobody knows yet what the “new normal” will look like. But accessible data that offers actionable insights will be an invaluable part of our cities’ and communities’ recovering in a positive and equitable way.

For more on the value of data sharing and collaboration, visit the Open Data Campaign page. And follow @MSFTIssues on Twitter.