Harnessing Data to Fight COVID-19

An Australian-supported global research initiative is helping combat the pandemic by improving access to essential data.
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As the COVID-19 virus continues to wreak havoc around the world, an Australian-supported global research initiative is helping combat the pandemic by improving access to essential data.

The project, undertaken through the Research Data Alliance (RDA), has just released a set of recommendations and guidelines that will enable researchers and data experts to better address the immense challenge of this and future emergencies, by sharing data in a timely, accurate way.

The unprecedented speed and impact of the virus highlighted a need for extraordinary responses; access to open research data was quickly identified as an essential aspect of preparing for and responding to the crisis.

“The challenges associated with data collection, usage and sharing during a pandemic is a new landscape for all of us,” Priyanka Pillai, the group’s co-chair, said.

The pandemic has amplified the importance of sharing data across jurisdictions.

“Data harmonisation, a lack of coordinated systems and legal/ethical barriers are some of the biggest challenges to sharing data. These recommendations could help formulate a better framework in the preparedness phase, to allow rapid and harmonised collection, aggregation and sharing of data,” Priyanka said.

In late March, the European Commission asked the RDA to develop a set of global guidelines and recommendations for data sharing. By early April, more than 600 data professionals and domain experts across Australia and overseas were working on the COVID-19 project. Their results have just been published in the RDA report, COVID-19 Recommendations and Guidelines for Data Sharing.

The guidelines were designed to help researchers and data stewards follow best practices to maximise the efficiency of their work and to provide a blueprint for future emergencies. The report also includes recommendations to help policymakers and funders strengthen the availability of timely, quality data sharing and appropriate responses in other health emergencies.

Trying to produce results in a short timeframe, while operating under widespread social restrictions across a global area, provided numerous challenges. However, the project was completed in just over six week

“Pre-COVID, this type of report would have typically taken the RDA years to produce. The urgency of this situation made it possible to achieve what would have previously been considered impossible. Furthermore, it was done virtually,” Kheeren Dharmawardena, a moderator on the project, noted.

The report notes a number of challenges and areas for improvement around data sharing, including:

  • the absence of  a universally adopted system for collecting, documenting and disseminating research results
  • better guidelines for collecting or linking social and behavioural data
  • the need to publish data with a related paper
  • providing legal and ethical guidance around collecting, analysing and sharing data in similar emergency situations.

“When adopted, these guidelines will help make our response to the pandemic more effective, with less time lost in non-productive activities,” Kheeran said.

“If this work improves the time it takes to develop a vaccine by a day, we save thousands of lives. If it enables faster contact tracing, we save thousands of lives. If it enables increased confidence in cross-country testing and allows trade to resume, it saves thousands of jobs and makes it easier for economies to recover.”

The ARDC is an active contributor and supporter of the RDA.