Data for good: powering our way to a better world

If knowledge truly is power, then data is demonstrably the most valuable resource on earth.

We often talk about data in the singular: our individual personal data; our unique digital footprint. But what is becoming increasingly clear is the power of data when it is combined, and the role this is playing in tackling some of the biggest challenges facing humans and our planet.

Take the pandemic. Data about infection rates, hospitalisations and, sadly, deaths is driving decisions about everything from when to shut down and when to lift lockdown for governments worldwide. It is helping inform models and planning for when shops and restaurants can reopen, when it is deemed safe to restart indoor socialising and pack crowds into stadiums once more. Ultimately, data will play a key role in finding the hoped-for tipping point where we can reopen our economy without overwhelming health services with a new spread of disease.

At the start of the pandemic, just over a year ago, the Zoe Covid symptom-tracking app, developed by academics at King’s College London among others, was a surprise success, being used by thousands of users each day who voluntarily shared how they were feeling and whether they had tested positive for coronavirus. At a point in time when community testing was nowhere near as advanced as it is now, it helped shed light on the spread and prevalence of this disease that had shut down the world in communities across Britain. Crucially, the sheer volume of reports also helped identify hitherto unknown symptoms, such as loss of sense of taste and smell, enabling medical staff greater insight into this new and serious disease.

More recently, data from the vaccine trials, shared by those taking part as well as those monitoring them, has played an enormously important role in passing safety trials and raising awareness of benefits in the wider community, encouraging the high take-up rates seen so far. Data has again played a pivotal role as we find our way back to a new version of our old way of life.

But it’s not just in health where sharing data for good can come to the fore. The world is facing a climate crisis of unprecedented severity, threatening the very future of life on this planet. As we embark on a decisive decade where we need to dramatically lower carbon emissions, data, in the form of tracking actual reductions against targets set, is crucial to understanding how well we are doing in this most important of battles, as well as helping ensure companies and governments stick to their promises.

Data does good in so many other things too – among them helping track endangered wildlife, monitor pollutants in the air and water, and map crime hotspots as well as charity efforts. Ultimately, it helps to create better and safer societies.

We should absolutely all be taking care of the data that belongs to us, our data that we create, that we have a right to be able to control and share exactly as we choose. But we should also bear in mind the power of that data to help each of us, every day, benefit from the good that can come when it is shared and used to create a better world for us all.