How Data Is Transforming the Fight Against Pandemics
The more time I spend working with data, and watching how our customers work with data, the more convinced I am of two things: 1) the power to do extraordinary things is embedded within data and 2) all of us working or dealing with data have a role to play in using our knowhow and technology to apply data to benefit humanity and tackle some of the biggest challenges of our lifetime – the environment, equality, education, health and safety.
Right now, we live in uncertain times and face challenges that we haven’t had to deal with in many decades. I believe in the power of human ingenuity to win the fight against the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. And I believe that data has the power to enable people to reach their full potential in uncertain environments. The answers to complicated questions are all there in the data — we just have to find them, and we have to do so while respecting the privacy, security, and dignity of patients and healthcare workers.
It’s an enormous responsibility. And I’m excited and fascinated by the work of so many companies and public service organizations who are taking on this challenge of fighting this pandemic with information.
Our secret weapon — massive datasets
One of the hallmarks of trying to solve a viral pandemic is that it is a fight against time as well as a virus. We are always struggling to keep up against the curve of infection, and we start out behind. That’s why understanding data is so critical to fighting this virus — being able to comprehend its structure, its spread, and effective treatments gives us the advantage of time as scientists work to get it under control. The faster we understand the virus, the faster we can treat patients and develop vaccines.
What’s fascinating to me about the medical and biotech community’s fight against COVID-19 is that the advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning are giving us an enormous advantage against this virus. We are able to crunch massive amounts of data in order to find the information we need. Fighting pandemics has always depended on careful observation of behavior and meticulous attention to documenting events. But now, instead of depending on a small number of observations, we can use huge datasets to give us an advantage in the war against both time and the virus. Here are a few examples of how that’s working:
1) Google’s DeepMind AI Unit has been using its AI learning models to share understanding about the protein structures of COVID-19. DeepMind is using a machine learning method called “free modeling” to compare viral protein structures; DeepMind's findings hope to cut down on the months of effort it usually takes to determine the protein structure of a virus, getting us to treatment and a cure faster.
2) Boston Children’s Hospital has developed an infectious disease tracking platform called Healthmap, which uses data confirmed by public health agencies around the world. It tracks the spread of COVID-19 in real-time and has proven invaluable in understanding how the disease is transmitted. But even more importantly, says project manager Kara Sewalk, her team needs to have a “reliable dataset to use after the outbreak is over, for epidemiological research to help prevent or minimize future outbreaks.”
3) Hospitals in both China and South Korea have used AI systems to diagnose coronavirus symptoms, getting the diagnosis more quickly and alleviating the shortage of testing kits.
How data will prevent pandemics in the future
There seems to be no doubt that the coronavirus will change a lot of things in our society. Human beings are social creatures, and that won’t — and shouldn’t — ever change. But there is a lot of room for technological innovation to eliminate needless transmission points for infectious agents.
For example, it makes sense to deploy robotic systems to sterilize hospital equipment and deliver food and medicine in hospitals. Several robotics companies are developing and repurposing robots for work in clinical settings.
When healthcare systems get overwhelmed, it isn’t just the frontline staff who are affected — though all of us are enormously grateful for their work. Backoffice functions like processing claims and billing can get overwhelmed as well, slowing down efficient treatment. Blockchain technologies have shown promising progress in streamlining these processes.
Data quality is essential for understanding how pandemics like COVID-19 grow and spread. Partnerships between data modelers and public health organizations are going to be critical in the coming years if we are to understand and stop the transmission of novel viruses. These partnerships have been instigated by the spread of coronavirus, and as they grow and deepen, the quality and accuracy of these models will only improve.
Data is the future — if handled well
It seems clear that data is an essential tool in the fight against COVID-19. I am a firm believer in people’s creativity and ingenuity, and I believe that access to data has proven to be an important way to navigate our way through these difficult times. Data has the power to unlock potential and lead to great discovery, and the advances in data technology are making the fight against infectious disease evermore successful.
Please stay safe and healthy.