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Over the last year and a half, COVID-19 has changed the way people move, work, shop, and live. The pandemic has necessitated new data-sharing initiatives to understand new patterns of movement, analyze the spread of COVID-19, and inform research and decision-making. In 2021, Spectus collaborated with the Open Data Institute (ODI) and NYU’s The GovLab to explore the efficacy of these new initiatives.

The ODI is a non-profit organization that brings together commercial and non-commercial organizations and governments to address global issues as well as advise on how data can be used for positive social good. As part of a larger project titled “COVID-19: Building an open and trustworthy data ecosystem,” the ODI published a new report with Spectus and The GovLab, an action research center at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering that has pioneered the concept of data collaboratives and runs the data stewards network among other initiatives to advance data-driven decision making in the public interest. This report, “The Use of Mobility Data for Responding to the COVID-19 Pandemic,” specifically addresses key enablers and obstacles to the successful sharing of mobility data between public and private organizations during the pandemic.

Overview of Report on Mobility Data & COVID-19

Since early 2020, researchers and policy makers have been eager to understand the impact of COVID-19. With the help of mobility data, organizations from different sectors were able to answer some of the most pressing questions regarding the pandemic: questions about policy decisions, mass-communication strategies, and overall socioeconomic impact. Mobility data can be applied to specific use cases and can help answer complex questions, a fact that The GovLab discusses in its short-form mobility data brief. Understanding exactly how organizations employ mobility data can also improve how institutions operate post-pandemic and make data collaboration as a whole more responsible, sustainable, and systemic.

Spectus and the GovLab identified 51 projects where mobility data was used for pandemic response, and then selected five case studies to analyze further. The report defines mobility data, the ethics surrounding it, and the lessons learned for the future.

Four maps on an open laptop conveying human mobility data

Case Study Example: Mobility and Proximity in Canada

One of the case studies selected features a data collaborative between Spectus and the University of Toronto Rotman School of Management and Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy. Using Spectus’ privacy-enhanced, de-identified mobility data, the project was able to produce metrics that provided insight into changes in human mobility and proximity over the past year and a half, and the importance and effectiveness of social-distancing measures. The study also demonstrated the effectiveness of multi-institution and multi-sector collaboration in understanding complex systems in times of crisis.

The additional case studies include analyses of several different projects:

  • The European Commission Joint Research Centre utilized smartphone-derived mobility data to improve the targeting of policymaking
  • The Universidad de Desarrollo Data Science Institute employed de-identified telecommunications data to generate reports on mobility in Chile
  • The Greater London Authority Datastore created a COVID-19 Mobility Report by collaborating with the private sector
  • Facebook expanded its Data for Good offerings to support researchers, international agencies, nonprofits, and other public sector institutions in the fight against COVID-19

Findings and Recommendations for the Future

Ultimately, the study concluded with nine specific, actionable recommendations for the future.

  1. Developing and clarifying governance frameworks to enable the trusted, transparent, and accountable reuse of privately held data
  2. Building capacity of organizations in the public and private sector to reuse and act on data through investments in training, education, and re-skilling of relevant authorities
  3. Establishing data stewards in organizations who can coordinate with counterparts on using data in the public’s interest
  4. Establishing dedicated and sustainable Corporate Social Responsibility programs in organizations
  5. Building a network of data stewards to streamline efforts while promoting greater transparency
  6. Engaging the public about how their data is being used so they can clearly articulate how they want their data to be responsibly used, shared, and protected
  7. Promoting technological innovation through collaboration between funders and researchers to develop and deploy useful, privacy-preserving technologies
  8. Unlocking funds from a variety of sources to ensure projects are sustainable and can operate long-term
  9. Increase research by publishing easily accessible research and creating dedicated centers to develop best practices

To learn more about this project, check out the full report: The Use of Mobility Data for Responding to the COVID-19 Pandemic.

This article was originally authored while the Spectus Data Clean Room product was known as Cuebiq Workbench.