In the Battle Against COVID-19, Data Holds the Key 


Congress must act now on data initiatives to fight COVID-19.

All over the globe, medical researchers are racing to find a vaccine and treatment for COVID-19. At the same time, government and business leaders are making tough decisions around public health and economic pressures. The fight against COVID-19 will be long and hard-won, and while we work toward a vaccine and therapies, one of our greatest weapons in that fight is data. Data to identify the right combination of molecules and to show effectiveness in the real world. Data to effectively model what-if scenarios for when and how to reopen for business.

We are in this fight together, and data is the connective tissue helping us harness insights for intelligent decision-making. Our health care providers, researchers, governments and business leaders need high-quality, real-time data in order to make informed decisions around policy, potential treatment, public health guidance and employee safety. Complete, accurate and up-to-date information is more critical than ever. And progress is being made as more data sets are made public and companies of all sizes and types have jumped into brainstorm solutions. Vaccine candidates have already been identified at an unprecedented pace and preliminary clinical trials for therapies are underway. 

However, this pandemic has made it abundantly clear that many organizations—including government agencies—have not invested enough in their data and technology. The Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018 dictated that each agency develop and maintain a comprehensive data inventory and designate a chief data officer. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and several other agencies have left this pivotal role vacant. In essence, the data troops—the data scientists, data engineers and software developers at those agencies—are fighting the battle without a general. 

We need CDOs to empower the front lines to win this war. The preponderance of the data community wants to ensure that CDOs are put in a position with the appropriate role and responsibilities, as well as support from the highest levels of leadership—in a private setting, that’s the CEO whereas in a public setting, it’s the cabinet chief level of an agency. And now more than ever, it is clear that organizations across the private and public sector must have a CDO to facilitate data governance and standards structures in order to implement a strategy and then map a course of action. 

Data governance is what enables the people, processes, and technologies needed to execute on the vision of the CDO, moving swiftly, to reach the end-state desired outcomes, while ensuring data is consistent, trustworthy and its privacy is respected. Data governance is at the core of any CDO’s data management program. It is part of the foundation that holds an organization up, ensuring that it is acting on the most complete, secure and reliable information available. Without strong data governance protocols, we risk inaccurate case counts, inconclusive information on which treatments are successful or misidentifying hot spots and communities that are most impacted—insights that our leaders need to guide us through this storm safely with clear visibility. Without effective data governance, we risk feeding low-quality data to software models. That could undercut researchers in rapidly finding a vaccine or cure, potentially prolonging the crisis. 

This is why I and other members of the Data Coalition signed an open letter to Congress earlier this month calling for action that will make valid, reliable data available through a trusted and robust data infrastructure. To achieve this, the government needs systems and protocols that will protect public health with a data-driven approach to the COVID-19 pandemic. Sadly, that does not fully exist today and is something that CDOs at CDC and other agencies can remedy.

Further action is needed now by Congress on the unanimous recommendations outlined in the 2017 bipartisan U.S. Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking, which was established to develop a strategy for increasing the availability and use of data in order to build evidence about government programs while protecting privacy and confidentiality. 

We also need to rapidly establish a National Secure Data Service, which was recommended by the CEBP but not fully implemented in the Foundations Act. This service would work to improve privacy-protected data sharing for research and enable access to data already collected by the government to understand the impacts of COVID-19 on households. This is essential if we want to understand the impacts of the virus long-term on our economy and population and measure the progress of policies implemented to mitigate its effects.

Congress must prioritize funding for critical needs in the evidence ecosystem, so agencies can build the capacity and infrastructure for strong data governance, program evaluation and analysis. For example, we must ensure agencies like the National Center for Health Statistics and CDC can collect high-quality data for analyses and report information in near real-time. 

Finally, we need government to offer full transparency and accountability, with mechanisms in place to ensure certain data standards are upheld for government spending while building public trust through information that is openly available and accurate. 

I have spent my career promoting and highlighting the value of good data. Always important, data more than ever could hold the key to our health and economic welfare. The situation we face is grave – and the decisions we make today, tomorrow and in the months and years to come must be based on good data. As a member and voice in the data community, I’ve been heartened by our industry’s rush to arms during this pandemic.

We have the technology and capacity to uncover new information about COVID-19 daily and in real-time. Now, it is up to our government leaders to ensure that information is accurate, distributed to the people who need it most and able to put the data to work. Bringing good data to the forefront could not be more important than ever for our nation and the entire world. It is our instinct to reach out with a helping hand to those most in need, and I speak on behalf of the whole Informatica family that we are in it together and want to make a big difference. 

Amit Walia is chief executive officer of Informatica