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Matchmakers of the data world: how ‘data intermediaries’ can bring decision makers and data together to help combat Covid-19

Tue Oct 13, 2020
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Access to data is essential to support effective and swift decisions around Covid-19, making the role of the data intermediaries more important than ever

Find out how this vital ‘go-between’ role can help ensure Covid-19 data is shared effectively and efficiently to inform critical decisions around Covid-19 policy

For data to create change in the world it has to find its way from its source to the point where it will be used to make decisions. However, this flow of data – from data source to data user – is often held back or delayed.

There are several reasons why this might happen:

  • A dataset has potential users but they don’t know the data exists.
  • A data source wants to share data but doesn’t know how best to share it.
  • Data users don’t have the skills or funds to access data from a source.
  • Users need data from many sources but don’t have the time to find and collect the data.
  • A data source doesn’t have the capacity to set up numerous sharing agreements.

Those who help broker this flow of data could be described as go-betweens, middlemen, facilitators, aggregators, etc – but we use ‘intermediaries’ as a catch-all term. Data intermediaries can be an informal, even temporary, group of people offering a helping hand; or they can be large, established organisations with legal status and financial resources.

Covid-19 makes the need for data intermediaries even more important than usual. People want to make decisions and take action around Covid-19 as soon as possible, and need data to make these decisions. Access to data – and data sharing – can be difficult to set up without help. Also, as there is an ever-increasing quantity of Covid-19-related data, many data sources and data users will need help to manage the huge volume of data effectively.

During our research, we talked to people taking the role of data intermediary in relation to Covid-19 data. The following are some of the ways we have seen these intermediaries help sources and users share data.

Dataset lists

Intermediaries have created lists, registries and hubs where users can find data sources.

Some of the many examples we found were:

These registries vary in two ways. First, whether the intermediary hosts the data (like AWS Data Exchange) or whether they link to the data (like the GovLab). Second, whether the lists are maintained by the intermediary or by a community which is overseen by the intermediary. For example, AWS controls what datasets are on the AWS Data Exchange but the Coronavirus Tech Handbook allows anyone to contribute.

Bringing people together

While lists can help people find open data, it is also useful for data sources and users to discuss potential data sharing. This could be to understand user requirements, the data itself, usage limits or possible costs.

However, finding these contacts, building a network and maintaining relationships all take time and effort.

Intermediaries can help by working with users and sources, and can use their network to find potential partners. As an example, we have been talking to researchers at the Royal Society and the Rapid Assistance in Modelling the Pandemic (RAMP) group. They noted that mobility data from telecoms companies would be useful in their research on how Covid-19 is affecting people’s movements. We are now working with Connected Places Catapult to talk to telecom companies about possible data sharing agreements for RAMP and others.

Intermediaries can also help bring people together by sharing lists of contacts or holding networking events. The ODI is convening a series of workshops, bringing together people from the private and public sectors, to discuss data sharing for Covid-19.

Data access initiatives

Data sources often hold useful data but lack the motivation to publish it openly (we call this ‘data hoarding’). Larger intermediaries are well placed to make this case for publishing data and may be able to offer a publishing platform. At the ODI, we describe these as data access initiatives.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) has set up Covid-Secure Check, an open collection of Covid-19 workplace risk assessments which are submitted by employers. As well as publishing the risk assessments, the TUC monitors good and bad practices, and uses the evidence to improve working conditions during the pandemic. This is important for trade unions and safety leads, and is a useful source for journalists and government statisticians. The project is still in its alpha phase, but the aim is to build the database, and the TUC is asking employees to anonymously add their employer’s risk assessment to the database. (Government guidance states that companies must share the results of their risk assessment with their workforce, and that all employers with over 50 workers should publish results on their own websites).

Tools and services

Often data users need services beyond just data access. They may need to combine and analyse data from multiple sources, but perhaps lack the time or skills. An intermediary can build tools or services that help users gain insights that they wouldn’t be able to achieve by themselves.

The Newcastle Urban Observatory created the Live Impact Dashboard which collects open data from several sources including traffic, air quality and energy usage. It combines and visualises these to show how Covid-19 is affecting people’s actions and movements in Tyne and Wear,  England.

The Centre For Cities also provide visualisations and analysis of data for its High Streets Recovery Tracker, which shows how Covid-19 is affecting shopping patterns in Britain. In contrast to the Urban Observatory, some of this data was purchased from private companies, allowing others to access insights based on this otherwise closed data.

Vital role in increasing access to data

We’ve used the term ‘data intermediary’ as a starting point to cover the many roles involved in helping data move between data sources and users. In future we may see more nuanced terms come about such as ‘data matchmaker’, ‘data arbitrator’ or ‘data mediator’. Whatever we call them, it is clear this role is vital to help ensure Covid-19 data is shared effectively and efficiently to help inform critical decisions around Covid-19 policy.