Covid-19: sketching with data to solve people’s problems

Thu Jan 21, 2021
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This worknote looks at the outcomes of a Covid-19 data workshop we held with TechUK, and how we turned those insights into rough paper prototypes

This worknote was co-authored with Mike Rose

When the Covid-19 pandemic started back in early 2020, it became clear to us at the ODI that data would be key to tackling this crisis. Many people and organisations started looking at whether the data they held and collected could benefit others. This included data about how people were moving around, economic analyses, tracking Covid-19 symptoms and data about stock-levels in shops.

We knew that the ODI was not the only organisation looking at Covid-19 data and we were having many discussions with different organisations. One of the most fruitful was with TechUK. We recognised that, in terms of the future and adapting to whatever the ‘new normal’ was to be, TechUK and ODI members would be able to provide guidance and tools about data use and management. We decided that we would try to mobilise our memberships to consider some of the problems, issues and opportunities that were apparent from the crisis.

We ran a workshop with TechUK and ODI members to discuss these issues and opportunities. What was striking during this event was that many of the problems around data were the same problems that we have been trying to solve for many years. 

When talking in the abstract about data, often we do not get past the first principles of things like privacy, confidentiality and value. We realised that focusing on data was not the most effective way of thinking about recovery and adaptation. What we needed to think about was what people want to do, and to use data to assess how people can go about their lives in as safe a way as possible. TechUK has published a more expansive blog covering this workshop.

One specific discussion point in the workshop was around examples such as community, public safety and the use of data-driven mobility solutions to support reopening of local high streets. It was also felt that these solutions may also have a role to play after the pandemic in terms of recovery and rebuilding.  

We decided as a team that it would be interesting to conclude our project on Covid-19 by thinking about what people would need to know to support and adapt their lives during and after lockdowns. We took the information we got from the TechUK and ODI Members workshop and considered the outcomes and objectives.

We took an outcome-first approach rather than a data-first approach, deliberately, so we were thinking about what the solution was rather than what the problems were. We spent time in a team workshop focused on gathering some potential user requirements, for example, services to aid recovery from local lockdowns etc.

The first category related to the safety of going out to the high street. The kinds of questions that we would want to ask were around the safest form of transport; predictions of when it would be quietest; and live information on the situation in shopping areas now.

We then had a discussion around collecting items from shops, particularly thinking about the kinds of shops that do not have delivery services. We thought about availability and how the local community could potentially help with collecting items.

Starting with user needs allowed us to focus on the outcome. Focusing on the ‘why’ (looking at the issue), and then focusing on the ‘how’ (engaging with data holders) helps describe the problem and solution, and contextualises the need for the data, helping to overcome barriers.

It is worth emphasising that of course, to develop products and services you need data and you need to resolve issues. What we are showing and advocating here is that using an outcome-first approach helps to ascertain what data is needed.

We found that this approach drew together a lot of the learning we have done over the past nine months from which we have produced a first-draft set of rough design prototypes.

Rather than delve too deep into wireframe apps and design considerations, we created sketches based on key concerns during the pandemic – for example, shielding vulnerable friends and family – and thought about existing relevant apps and services that could be applied.

All images in the below table, credit: Lucy Knight | CC-BY-SA

What am I allowed to do? (What tier am I in?)Phone app showing 'plan my trip: essentials only'
I need to buy [...] items. Which of the shops that I need are going to be open?Phone app showing 'my shopping list', 'plan my trip' and 'shop opening times'
Is the item I need in stock?Phone app showing 'plan my trip'
How busy is [...]?app image showing shop 'very busy' and shop 'quiet' times
Is this shop able to deliver what I need?Phone app showing 'plan my trip' - showing how busy/quiet shops are
If I need a break during shopping, where is the nearest available:
- Cafe
- Public toilet
- Baby changing area
Phone app showing 'break time'
Is [...] a safe environment?
- Social distancing
- Masks
- Hand sanitiser
- Deep cleaning
Phone app showing shop opening times, and Covid-safe star ratings
Can somebody else shop for me/can I shop for somebody else while I’m out?Phone app showing 'my town hub'

What this means is that none of the ideas we have sketched out here are brand new advances in app design; rather they are intended as prompts for thinking about how we could bring existing information together in a format that helps people feel prepared and safe while supporting economic and social recovery.

Through this exercise, we were able to explore the rich interplay between data and tangible applications that can be made possible if data about businesses and the places we live can be made available. We will continue to provide support and guidance to make data work for everyone in, and beyond, this Covid-19 crisis. You can find more information about our projects, insights and guidance on this topic in our Covid-19 hub.