Big Data In A Time Of Pandemic

January 28, 2021  |  Mark Hillary

It’s not easy to explain Big Data to someone without a background in Computer Science. A traditional database is fairly easy to imagine – you have a series of tables that have records and fields. Anyone that has used Excel can picture this, but Big Data often refers more to the observation of data in real-time – we are really talking about the volume, variety, and velocity of data being far greater in a Big Data environment.

The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has offered data analysts some great opportunities to study Big Data trends across the world. The TraceTogether app launched by the government of Singapore is a good example.

When a person is diagnosed with COVID-19 it is important for doctors to undertake contact tracing. This means the patient has to try recalling every single person they have met in at least the past week, so all these people can be tested immediately for the virus. The TraceTogether app uses Bluetooth to keep a record of every person that comes close to you – so if you are diagnosed, the app can list everyone that you met recently.

The Singapore app has had over 1 million downloads – a record for a government app – but with around 6m people in the country, the results may not be entirely reliable. Better datasets can be found by working directly with the phone companies. China, Israel, and South Korea have been doing contact tracing by directly using data from the telcos.

Deutsche Telekom and several other European telcos are now handing over data linked to their customer’s data use. Importantly, this also includes location information. When governments announce a national lockdown on citizens, analyzing these huge data sets can provide information about whether the public is paying attention or not.

Forbes magazine recently featured a story suggesting that Big Data could play a role in predicting future pandemics, predicting the growth of this present pandemic, and helping to speed up the development of a vaccine. It seems that a combination of Big Data analytics and machine learning can help us in many different ways.

These examples related to the COVID-19 pandemic show the true nature of Big Data – vast amounts of data that represent many different types of information and constantly changing – it’s a perfect example of a Big Data environment.

Nobody can be certain that Big Data can help with the vaccine because vaccine development usually takes about a decade. With all the resources being thrown at this problem some experts are predicting 2021, but these are still just predictions. However, the use of phone data to monitor (and control) populations is real and creates some concerns.

Many citizens might accept this level of government oversight during a health crisis, but there are already concerns from privacy watchdogs that the government might not stop using this data in the future. Perhaps we are watching some of our privacy disappear forever during this health crisis? Perhaps we just need to accept this new era of Big Data?

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