Australia's Data Opportunity in Tackling COVID-19

Australians’ high trust in government can help policymakers capture the data needed to combat the coronavirus. But officials need to protect individual privacy if they are to succeed.


In the fight against COVID-19, the ability to share and analyze data is a powerful tool. Australians trust their federal government with their data more than people in the US, UK, Germany, Spain, or Singapore, according to a recent Oliver Wyman Forum survey.  To take advantage of that trust, though, the government needs to address concerns about how data is used and the level of privacy that people are afforded. Indeed, as of April 16, the federal government is reportedly moving forward with the adoption of a Singapore-style COVID-19 location app. Our survey suggests a critical design feature will be the balance between Australian’s willingness to share information, concern regarding the uses to which it is put, and the level of privacy they are afforded.

The willingness of Australians to trust government with sensitive health data stands out in our six-nation survey. In Germany, for instance, there is a deep-seated suspicion of anything that could be interpreted as government surveillance, while the US has a proud history of favoring limited government. In Australia, societal attitudes may open up more powerful, data-driven approaches to accelerate the fight against COVID-19. The federal government is expected to propose the launch of an app modeled on Singapore’s TraceTogether, which sends text alerts to people who come in close contact with infected persons.

Until now, Australia has lagged many nations in the marshalling of technology and personal data to fight COVID-19. The country has instead relied upon anonymized, highly aggregated mobile data from telecommunications companies and transport apps to trace its citizens’ movement and compliance with social distancing recommendations.

While aggregate data has its uses and over half of Australians surveyed were comfortable with the idea, it’s not enough to help the community make practical choices. For example, some localization data is published on government websites which enables, for example, the hotspot of coronavirus cases around Sydney’s Bondi-Waverley area to be seen. But those public sources are insufficiently detailed to be actionable — Bondi residents cannot avoid Bondi.

This should change. Our survey found that Australians are more willing than the average across other jurisdictions to share data to fight the pandemic, particularly preventative measures such as pooling biometric data to improve airport screening or financial transaction data to trace points of contact in shops. 

Australians’ willingness to share their data provides an opportunity for the authorities to do more: Forty percent of Australians would be comfortable sharing a positive coronavirus test with federal or local government officials. This figure was the highest across the six countries surveyed.

However, they are more hesitant than other respondents to share individual mobile location data to trace potential contact with infected persons. That sentiment poses a challenge for the government’s plan to develop a contact-tracing app similar to the ones that Singapore and several European countries have adopted.

Policymakers need to be careful not to push too far. Some attribute the failure of the Australia Card in the 1980s to the proposed national identity document being seen as too close to a “Big Brother” measure. While our survey showed Australians are quite willing to share health information with their government to beat the virus, they were much less comfortable than Singaporeans about sharing individual mobile location data.

The app the federal government has been considering would require the voluntary participation of users, just as Singapore’s does. But Australia is reportedly targeting to get 40 percent of the population on board, twice the rate of Singapore. Our survey suggests this target is optimistic. If participation tracks the relative willingness to share mobile location data, the Australia app may struggle to achieve 15 percent uptake.

Our survey was conducted from March 24 to March 27, immediately before the daily confirmed new cases peaked in Australia. Today, with the virus appearing more under control, Australians’ may be even less open to granular mobile data sharing.

Set against this, our survey found Australians are most willing to share data where the purpose is clear and there are specific boundaries around the scope of data collection. Where our questions were most targeted — for example, we found that 45% of Australians were willing to share biometric data to improve airport screening — support was consistently at its highest. That suggests to give themselves the best chance of community support, policymakers should be clear on the application and limitations of individual mobile data usage, and whether such data-sharing will be rolled back once the crisis recedes.

Australia has north of six thousand confirmed coronavirus cases, as of April 15, and the virus reproduction rate has dropped below one, which puts it in a comparatively good position to the other countries surveyed. But the fight is far from over, and Australia will need to draw on every resource to return to full health and get back to business as usual.

Policymakers should not fear making a case for expanding their request for data in order to win the battle with COVID-19 and allow individuals to better protect themselves and each other. However, calibrating the use of that data to match with community willingness to share them is critical. Ask for too much, and uptake of the tools is likely to be sharply reduced.