In recent years, we have started to see the use of big data to prevent health crises and improve global health services. But could better management of global data on human health have prevented the COVID-19 crisis?

Government Technology Agency (GovTech) staff demonstrate Singapore's new contact-tracing smarthphone app called TraceTogether, as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 in Singapore on March 20, 2020.(Photo by Catherine LAI / AFP)
Government Technology Agency (GovTech) staff demonstrate Singapore's new contact-tracing smarthphone app called TraceTogether, as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 in Singapore on March 20, 2020.(Photo by Catherine LAI / AFP)

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “an additional two billion people could be at risk of dengue transmission by the 2080s.” Indeed, we can see an increase in the number and intensity of factors such global warming, international trade, and mass tourism that provoke the outbreak and spread of infectious diseases. And now, within just a few months, the coronavirus epidemic has killed nearly 130,000 people worldwide.


Better care through geolocation using data

Using geolocation tools, specialists and health services can track epidemics in real time and respond more accurately to people’s needs. During recent health crises such as the Ebola crisis in Africa, the United Nations Operational Satellite Applications Programme  (UNOSAT) helped produce maps. This made it possible to plot out the quickest routes to reach people and to target treatment centers, deliver medical supplies and medicines, and grasp the infrastructure of affected communities.

“Digital technologies, which are already vital for diagnostics, are also becoming more and more integrated into treatments as well,” explains Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. On the ground, mobile technologies and telemedicine are facilitating access to care and more or less successfully ensuring its continuity and quality for the inhabitants of the most remote villages. In Rwanda, the start-up Zipline uses drones to deliver blood bags and medicines to remote hospitals. In Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, and Burkina Faso, prevention messages are sent by SMS to educate the population about good health practices.


Alert systems: tools for coordinated global health management

Digital technologies and artificial intelligence have increased the amount of health information collected each minute. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has also stated that “artificial intelligence is playing an increasing role in disease surveillance and our defenses against outbreaks”.

Information can be collected directly by health professionals in the field – or by citizens, who are asked to communicate their health status and the health situation in their region. Healthmap, for example, detects the early stages of epidemics, ResistanceOpen monitors antibiotic resistance, tracks flu-related diseases and symptoms, and OIE-WAHIS gathers data on animal diseases. These online platforms enable fast reporting of suspected cases and massive sharing of information. They are crucial tools for preventing and managing crises in a coordinated way and on a global scale.

Management of big data and surveillance… for health purposes only?

To stem the coronavirus pandemic, China detects fever sufferers on the streets by using facial recognition technologies previously deployed in public places. In Singapore, the Trace Together application makes it possible to geolocate sufferers and alert people who may have been in contact with them: it was downloaded 620,000 times over a period of 10 days. The Singaporean government provides citizens with information about detected cases daily via WhatsApp.

The United Nations has stated that privacy in the digital era is a fundamental right and that without prior legal authorization, without a specific application, and without people’s consent, governments cannot track the movements of individuals without violating human rights. Yet, surveillance for public health purposes comes dangerously close to those limits.

In Singapore, for example the government appears to be cross-analyzing data on geolocation, bank statements, and video surveillance to contact people suspected of being infected. Meanwhile, in Europe, several governments are considering the use of an application similar to Trace Together to identify and geolocate coronavirus patients and carriers.


Unreliable data are useless for global health

Another problem is possible distortion in the results of research carried out through the processing of clinical or non-clinical data collected this way. Indeed, much of the non-clinical data comes from social networks, is anonymous, and has not been verified for reliability. Although the latest edition of the WHO Bulletin  proposes solutions for the ethical governance of these new methods, there is currently no ethical committee to monitor these data. Creating such a monitoring body might make technological advances beneficial to global health without compromising human rights.



The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.

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