Leveraging Big Data During Pandemics

Last week I had the opportunity to interview a software analyst working for one of the world’s most popular search engines. The analyst is part of a crisis response unit whose main task is to offer answers to Covid related queries. To do so, the crisis response team must gather reliable information from all over the world while updating this information in real-time. This is because search engine queries might include: when will schools re-open in the UK? What is the Covid fatality rate in Russia? Do smokers have a higher or lower chance of contracting Covid? And, did Covid originate in a Chinese military lab?

The task facing the crisis response team is thus monumental and demands that the team identify reliable spokespeople in every village, town and country while also analyzing global trends. While in some countries the team can rely on official figures, such as the number of Covid cases in Sweden and the number of ICU beds still available in Switzerland, in others nations there is a need to rely on non-official spokespeople. The analyst described how the response team hires local contractors to tour a nation and assess the spread of Covid. This has resulted in the search engine creating its own dataset on the global progress of the Covid outbreak.

Markedly, the search engine in question has both the financial and computational resources necessary to meet the Covid challenge. It retains innovative programmers; relies on existing algorithms to detect national patterns and can employ local contractors. These capabilities far exceed those of the average foreign ministry (MFA). Even MFAs that have experimented with big data, be it Israel, the UK or Lithuania, would be unable to match the abilities of commercial search engines. Yet diplomats could use their more modest big data abilities to answer four Covid related questions.

Question Number 1: How Are We Portrayed Abroad?

The Covid outbreak is likely to have a lasting impact on nations’ images. From the very beginning of the outbreak, some nations emerged as early responders and success stories (e.g., South Korea, Singapore) while others were labeled as failures (e.g., Spain). It will be some time before people are willing to purchase medical equipment from Milano. Nations could use big data analysis to understand how they are depicted in another country’s media. For instance, Israeli diplomats could analyze all French online articles dealing with Israel’s response to Covid. If these turn out to be negative, Israel could focus its diplomatic efforts on courting French journalists and supplying them with positive information ranging from successful health interventions to a high level of social solidarity. Such a limited, big data analysis could enable MFAs to strategically manage their nation’s image.

Question Number 2: Where Should We Focus Our Foreign Aid?

Foreign aid has long since become a cornerstone of many nations’ foreign policies. Yet for a country with limited resources the question is who to aid during a global crisis? Big data could help answer this question. For instance, diplomats could begin to track Covid related deaths and hospitalizations in nations that have yet to face a mass outbreak (e.g., countries in Africa, North Africa and Latin America). Once a spike in Covid patients is detected, the country in question could become the first recipient of foreign aid. By helping other nations respond quickly, and effectively to a Covid outbreak, MFAs could strengthen bi-lateral ties while saving many lives.

Question Number 3: Where is it Safe to Fly?

This question might seem fanciful at the moment, but economic logic dictates that within a few weeks, international air travel will resume on a limited basis. The immediate question facing diplomats will be- where can our citizens fly safely? Here again big data may be of use. The nations most likely to open their skies will be those deemed Covid free, or at least free for the moment. By tracking Covid cases in countries that have passed the outbreak’s peak, diplomats could determine which nations are also safe for their citizens to visit. Notably, in most countries daily Covid cases are already tracked by online news sites. MFAs need only aggregate such data and identify trends (e.g., daily average of 20 new Covid cases in Israel).

Question Number 4: Who is Close to a Vaccine?

A Covid vaccine will have far-reaching diplomatic ramifications. Once a vaccine is developed, all nations will line up to purchase vaccines for their citizens. The result will be a global que. For instance, if a vaccine is created in the UK, the first in line might be the US, or Canada. That means that number three in the que will have to wait for many months as the production of vaccines for 350 million Americans will take time. Diplomats’ task will be to ‘jump the que’ and obtain Covid vaccine as soon as possible. This will lead to an intense bidding war with each nation applying carrots and sticks. Israel, for instance, will try to mobilize the Jewish Diaspora in Britain, India will call on its own large Diaspora in the UK while other nations may threaten not to sign lucrative trade deals with post-Brexit UK. Even if the UK decides to sell the vaccine’s formula, or even if several nations develop a successful vaccine, there will still be a race to secure the vaccine first. By identifying which nations are working on a vaccine, and tracking news reports on the progress of such attempts, diplomats could launch pre-emptive ‘charm offensives’ to secure a good place in the global que.

There are of course other uses of big data, yet given MFAs limited capabilities and experience, answering the aforementioned four questions could enable diplomats to best leverage big data during the Covid pandemic.


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