The biggest health crisis of the information age provides a test case of the rapid mobilization of data. Data analysis has enabled scientists to project the course of the disease, identify the people most at risk, and develop vaccines in record time. Yet many countries have struggled to contain the pandemic, and lockdowns, masks, and vaccines have become political footballs.
Our surveys identified one major obstacle that impeded the sharing of data: A lack of trust. Most respondents were reluctant to share their COVID status with anyone other than their doctor or public health authorities.
The need to build trust shaped the development of contact-tracing apps. These data-sharing smartphone apps can help slow the spread of the disease by alerting people if they come into contact with infected persons and enabling the authorities to conduct contact tracing.
There was a clear trend away from early apps, which centralized the storage of user data, toward the adoption of decentralized apps that leave most data on users’ smartphones. Our survey found that countries that succeeded better in containing the virus had a greater public awareness of the value of contact tracing and showed an increase in public trust in government.
Data has a critical role to play in addressing complex societal challenges. To make full use of it, governments and organizations need to explain what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and how they will protect people’s privacy.