On Monday, April 20, 2020 at 12:30pm EDT, the Atlantic Council’s GeoTech Center hosted a panel of experts in the fields of health science, digital technologies, workplace law, and data privacy. The panel included Dame Wendy Hall, a nonresident senior fellow at the GeoTech Center; Declan Kirrane, the managing director of ISC Intelligence in Science; Jay Williams, chief technology officer at the Quantum Materials Corporation; Daniella Taveau, principal of Bold Text Strategies; and John Ackerly, the chief executive officer of Virtru. Dr. David Bray, Director of the GeoTech Center, moderated the discussion.
Never normal again
The discussion focused on the next steps for using data to recover from COVID-19. Right off the bat, the panel emphasized the importance of recognizing that there is no returning to the pre-COVID status quo, and that there will be no easy or quick restitution—the successful development of a vaccine would still require manufacturing, distribution, and logistics at an unprecedented scale and pace. The panelists agreed that data—through contact tracing, symptom tracking, and immunity certifications—would pave the way toward the world’s “new normal.”
Data provides as many challenges as it does solutions, though. The event’s discussants lamented the scarcity of good, local data, and the discreteness of what does exist. They agreed that the first challenge in a data-driven recovery is bridging those gaps: empowering people to provide that critical local information to enable an informed return to work and creating a framework for sharing the immense amounts of data foreseen and coordinating their international use. One member brought up the example of figuring out what immunity certifications will be valid in which jurisdictions and which governing bodies would be responsible for those decisions. If stay-at-home orders were the simple but difficult-to-adhere-to response to the pandemic, data solutions are their complex but more livable, long-term counterpart.
Food for thought
Throughout the discussion, the issue of food security resurfaced as an excellent example of how the pandemic interacts with extant complex problems. Supply chains and transportation difficulties emphasize how, even when there is a enough of a solution or product—say, data or vaccines—the greater challenge often lies in coordinating distribution and reaching the most remote segments of a network. Similarly, the impact of COVID-19 on an agricultural industry already beset by challenges—trade disruption and misinformation—highlights the pandemic’s tendency to exacerbate old problems and force uncomfortable and disruptive changes in prioritization. In this case, experts worried about the potential for the virus to divert funding away from critical agricultural R&D projects.
A data trust backed by public trust
The panelists were quick to summarize the nature of the game: balancing data privacy against utility within the bounds of the social contracts of liberal democracies. They acknowledged a need to establish public trust that the data helping nations recover from the pandemic would be used responsible—particularly challenging in the wake of previous incursions on privacy that stemmed from responses to crisis, such as the Patriot Act, enacted after 9/11. The most referenced model for using data responsibly and productively was a data trust. If this framework could legislate accountability, be designed for privacy, and operate with transparency, it could provide the solutions needed to arrive at a new normal.
As they considered how to best develop and administer a data trust, discussants also debated the future role of the nation-state. Several noted that politics and electoral incentives were hindering good policy and that there was a dearth of technical expertise among even experienced policy-makers. And while they looked to industry and its expertise for making quick and informed decisions, others worried about the difficulty of creating private sector accountability, of preserving citizen ownership of data and trust in its stewards, and of providing directed, national leadership. Still more panelists considered using broader organizations—either the UN or a confederation of NGOs—to coordinate the international jurisdictions, standards, and administration, though the shortcomings of those organizations were also noted. Last, respondents acknowledged how technology itself could provide some solutions: for example, block chains could provide a transparent audit of data use, and differential privacy might provide an interface to legislate quantifiable degrees of privacy. Even these measures have limits though, and the panel was eager to see the creation of a data system designed and legislated for transparent privacy, not one merely forced into it with complex technical measures.
Nonetheless, the panel concluded on an optimistic note. Respondents saw in the virus a chance for a fresh start and motivation to tackle problems long unaddressed, ranging from climate change to the complex roles of and relationships between government, intergovernmental organizations, and industry, all while clearly legislating the principles and ethics that will come to guide liberal democracies in the data-driven future. In that sense, the greatest failure in a response to the virus would be letting inertia and parochial self-interest direct us instead of data-backed, international, thoughtful deliberation.