Unconventional data, unprecedented insights: leveraging non-traditional data during a pandemic

Authors: Bolt, K. , Gil-González, D., Oliver, N.

External link: https://www.frontiersin.org/journals/public-health/articles/10.3389/fpubh.2024.1350743/full
Publication: Frontiers of Public health, 12, p. 1350743, 2024
DOI: https://doi.org/10.3389/fpubh.2024.1350743

Introduction: The COVID-19 pandemic prompted new interest in non-traditional data sources to inform response efforts and mitigate knowledge gaps. While non-traditional data offers some advantages over traditional data, it also raises concerns related to biases, representativity, informed consent and security vulnerabilities. This study focuses on three specific types of non-traditional data: mobility, social media, and participatory surveillance platform data. Qualitative results are presented on the successes, challenges, and recommendations of key informants who used these non-traditional data sources during the COVID-19 pandemic in Spain and Italy.

Methods: A qualitative semi-structured methodology was conducted through interviews with experts in artificial intelligence, data science, epidemiology, and/or policy making who utilized non-traditional data in Spain or Italy during the pandemic. Questions focused on barriers and facilitators to data use, as well as opportunities for improving utility and uptake within public health. Interviews were transcribed, coded, and analyzed using the framework analysis method.

Results: Non-traditional data proved valuable in providing rapid results and filling data gaps, especially when traditional data faced delays. Increased data access and innovative collaborative efforts across sectors facilitated its use. Challenges included unreliable access and data quality concerns, particularly the lack of comprehensive demographic and geographic information. To further leverage non-traditional data, participants recommended prioritizing data governance, establishing data brokers, and sustaining multi-institutional collaborations. The value of non-traditional data was perceived as underutilized in public health surveillance, program evaluation and policymaking. Participants saw opportunities to integrate them into public health systems with the necessary investments in data pipelines, infrastructure, and technical capacity.

Discussion: While the utility of non-traditional data was demonstrated during the pandemic, opportunities exist to enhance its impact. Challenges reveal a need for data governance frameworks to guide practices and policies of use. Despite the perceived benefit of collaborations and improved data infrastructure, efforts are needed to strengthen and sustain them beyond the pandemic. Lessons from these findings can guide research institutions, multilateral organizations, governments, and public health authorities in optimizing the use of non-traditional data.