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Guest post: Data diplomacy must go hand in hand with medical diplomacy

Tue Jun 2, 2020
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How can ‘data diplomacy’ – the use of diplomacy to increase access to and understanding of data – help in the fight against Covid-19?

Guest post by Astha Kapoor, co-founder of Aapti Institute, a Bengaluru-based public research firm, with contributions by Jack Hardinges, Programme Lead for Data Institutions at the ODI

How can the huge amount of Covid-19-related data be used effectively to inform the global response? Could ‘data diplomacy’ be part of the answer?

Amidst the devastation and complexity of the global pandemic, some encouraging indicators are emerging. In the arena of international cooperation, several countries have engaged in active medical diplomacy. India has sent medicines to the neighbouring countries of Bhutan, Bangladesh and Nepal; Cuba has continued its tradition of medical diplomacy by sending doctors and nurses to Italy; and Russia has sent medics and cargo to Italy as part of its ‘from Russia with love’ strategy. While some of these efforts have been met with scepticism, it is clear that medical diplomacy has grown in recent months.

Beyond medical diplomacy, this crisis has revealed the need for another kind of international cooperation — data diplomacy or ‘the harnessing of diplomatic actions and skills by a diverse range of stakeholders to broker and drive forward access to data, as well as widespread use and understanding of data’. The collection and use of information has been an important part of the fight against spread of diseases in the past, but significantly, Covid-19 has emerged at a time when we’re able to generate more data than ever before.

Being able to generate huge amounts of data about the virus is one thing; using that data to its true potential in informing our collective response is another. We’re beginning to see countries engage in data diplomacy to help ensure that the collection, use and sharing of data is coordinated and collaborative. They are beginning to recognise its importance alongside other diplomatic efforts in the battle against Covid-19 and its effects.

Many national governments are proactively publishing data about Covid-19 for other countries to use. For example, as part of President Moon Jae-in’s ‘coronavirus diplomacy’, which also involves exporting test kits to other nations, the South Korean government has promoted a playbook on how to contain the virus based on its own experiences. Elsewhere, despite the fractious relationship between the US and China — with each accusing the other of propagating false messages and narratives related to the spread of Covid-19 — it has been reported that President Xi Xinping has agreed to bilaterally share data with his counterpart.

The European Commission has adopted a supporting role, by launching a data portal to coordinate data publication across its member states, with the hope that it will help scientists to “understand, diagnose and eventually overpower the pandemic”.

This form of data sharing between nations, and creation of infrastructure to facilitate it, reflects the bald fact that data tends not to respect borders; its value would be limited if it were treated solely as a sovereign resource.

Data flows between governments and private sector organisations have also evolved rapidly in response to Covid-19. In recent weeks, for example, Google, Apple and Facebook have all released mobility reports that can be used by policymakers to monitor the effects of their policies on movement patterns in various places around the world.

There have been concerns, however, about the level of access that governments have to private-sector data — such as the UK government’s access to data held by telecom companies — and the lack of public scrutiny of this sharing. In other instances, governments have come into confrontation with companies unwilling to collect and share data.

In France, the government pressed Apple to allow the French contract-tracing app work in the ‘background on iPhones without building in the privacy measures that Apple wants’. The Apple system currently requires the app to remain active and on screen, which limits use of other functions on phones, and therefore could discourage use. Documentation about France’s alternative system shows that there would be ways to ‘re-identify users or to infer their contact graphs’ if desired.

These data flows are evidence of the important contributions made by the private sector in response to Covid-19, as well as the ‘digital politik’ that the international technology industry engages in, where technology and data are put to use to exert control and expand their influence. As many governments now look to put in place measures to transition out of lockdown – requiring careful monitoring and assessment to avoid causing further spikes in infection – the need for trustworthy access to private sector data is not going to go away.

Data diplomacy in response to Covid-19 also shows that data collection, use and sharing are not always best addressed by and between national governments.

On the international scale, organisations such as the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Economic Forum and the United Nations play an important role in facilitating data diplomacy. WHO has introduced a ‘COVID-19 Open’ data sharing and reporting protocol, designed to support the early publication of research related to the virus and making related data available quickly for widespread use, distribution and reproduction. The United Nations Statistics Division is supporting national statistical agencies in learning from one another’s experiences in collecting data related to the outbreak, and it catalogues the data they make available.

While the role of multilateral organisations in setting priorities, helping to define approaches and creating opportunities for collaboration is clear, local data collaboration and coordination are also important. For example, Fraym is contributing its hyperlocal geospatial data in the fight against the global pandemic in Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan and Guatemala. Its gridded data can provide information on people down to a square kilometre. While there are concerns related to the rollout of digital contact-tracing apps and tools, they also represent a way for citizens to themselves contribute data to inform local Covid-19 responses.

We need effective data diplomacy, particularly in times of crisis. At international and national levels, we must invest in creating open, trustworthy data infrastructure that helps ensure nation states and others can collaborate on data with clear respect for human rights. Where private sector organisations are involved — such as by sharing data they hold or developing new tools and services used by citizens — there must be transparency and oversight of the flows of data. Establishing where data collection, use and sharing are best devolved to local actors, as well as how to link local, national and international efforts, is another significant challenge for data diplomacy to address.

Data use is not the only solution to the Covid-19 crisis. Data diplomacy does, however, offer the possibility of maximising its value for our collective response, and will help to foster collaboration and coordination that could assist our transition to the post-pandemic world.