Can Big Data Help Us Save Both Lives and Livelihoods in the COVID-19 Pandemic?

lives v livelihoods, big data technology tracking, coronavirus


The impact of COVID-19 isn’t only being felt in the hospitals and care homes. Around the world, as societies adjust to social distancing and lockdown measures, relationships have felt the strain, people have suffered with their mental health, and many businesses have struggled to stay afloat – with some never set to open again.

Lockdown measures have eased slightly in some countries, but the question as to when governments should open up their respective economies is being debated with no clear answer. What’s more important: trying to save lives or save livelihoods?

Kairong Xiao, Assistant Professor of Business at Columbia Business School, recently released a paper discussing whether big data could help solve this question by doing both. We decided to find out more.

The difficult decision

COVID-19 has presented policymakers with the impossible decision of whether saving lives or saving livelihoods should take precedence.

We’ve seen the effectiveness of restricting movement through social distancing and lockdown measures by containing the rapid spread of the disease, but this inflicts steep costs on the economy as normal activities are disrupted.

In reality, it’s a painful decision between economic costs and human lives – a tradeoff that has caused divisive and heated debate in the policymaking realm.

However, big data could help chart a path through this tricky terrain. By using real-time location data from smartphones, it is possible to detect potential disease carriers and break the transmission chain. Big data could also help identify groups of people unlikely to carry the disease, so they can return to work and normal life, minimizing economic damage.

Findings promoting big data technology

During the COVID-19 pandemic, 322 Chinese cities implemented the contact-tracing app ‘Health Code’. Xiao found this use of big data tech significantly improved the tradeoff between human toll and economic costs.

Cities that used Health Code have seen significant increases in economic activities without suffering from higher infection rates. Overall, Xiao found that big data technology created an economic improvement equivalent to 0.5-0.75 percent of GDP.

Fears over privacy

In 2007, the World Health Organization launched an initiative to eliminate malaria on Zanzibar. Using mobile phones sold by Tanzania’s telecoms groups, including UK mobile operator Vodafone, the World Health Organization could track the spread of the disease between the island and mainland Africa by mapping how populations moved between the two locations.

This technology has proved invaluable in tracking and responding to epidemics ever since. The Zanzibar project was so successful in fact that it has been replicated across the continent by academics to monitor other deadly diseases including Ebola in west Africa.

Some global users worry big data technology could impact their rights with concerns raised surrounding privacy infringement and government surveillance. For this reason, large-scale data gathering can be seen as highly controversial.

The question becomes whether these concerns are significant enough to outweigh the benefits. The use of big data in China allowed a high level of the population to resume usual economic activities without the risk of counteracting the positive public health progress achieved during lockdown.

The UK has also proposed a tracker app system which keeps track of those who have been in close contact with an infected person through Bluetooth signals, transmitting an anonymous ID – and health officials have promised personal data will be protected.

The outcome of the study

Xiao said the empirical analysis yielded three main results.

The introduction of Health Code increased economic activity significantly by two-three percent; the cities using it also attracted greater population inflows and experienced smaller population outflows, seeing no increase infection rates despite increased economic activities.

To ensure countries using tracker systems yield the results they desire, an aggressive approach needs to be taken according to Xiao.

If these measures are implemented, the fear and risk attached to going outside and interacting with other people will be minimized and people will once again have the confidence to go about their daily lives and help businesses get back on their feet.

Niamh Ollerton, Deputy Head of Content at QS
Written by Niamh Ollerton

Niamh is Deputy Head of Content at QS (TopMBA.com; topuniversities.com), creating and editing content for an international student audience. Having gained her journalism qualification at the Press Association, London and since written for different international publications, she's now enjoying telling the stories of students, alumni, faculty, entrepreneurs and organizations from across the globe.  

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