Databases could track volunteers who are able to help and those who are self-isolating who need help

Coronavirus (2)

The coronavirus pandemic has forced many countries into lockdown (Credit: Pixabay)

Even during the coronavirus lockdown, communities are generating huge amounts of data that could be used for positive social purposes. Caroline Carruthers – former chief data officer at Network Rail, co-author of Data-Driven Business Transformation, and CEO of data consultancy Carruthers and Jackson – discusses how to harness its power while remaining transparent.


From voluntary groups to formal public sector organisations, there has been a huge response by the British public to answer calls to help others during the coronavirus pandemic.

These groups are helping to deliver shopping, run errands or even just give a friendly call to individuals or households who are unable to leave their homes due to the virus.

That last one is especially important because sometimes it is a friendly voice that can make all the difference.


Which types of data are created by communities during coronavirus pandemic?

What is overlooked is the huge amount of data these groups are generating and how they are twisting themselves into knots trying to look after it.

Whether it’s a central database of those most at risk of the virus or a list of neighbours willing to help on a local street, this data can be used to better understand where help is needed bringing us together when we need it the most and, ultimately, to fight the wider effects of the virus.

A group I am part of were worried about merging their information with the local council, which was also trying to co-ordinate efforts leading to multiple forms, messages and emails when I’m sure they had better things to be doing.

Caroline Carruthers
Former Network Rail chief data officer Caroline Carruthers, who co-authored the book Data-Driven Business Transformation

A friend’s group refused to share and made the council reach out to everyone separately so there was definitely duplication of effort going on.

Obviously, I am not saying that we should rip the rule book up and ignore all the good things about the data regulation – I think, though, that we need to focus on the bigger picture while still trying to do the right thing with data.


Why there is a lack of trust in data created by communities during coronavirus pandemic

Organisations seem to be hugely overcomplicating how they use data, primarily due to a misunderstanding about regulations.

Lots of community mutual aid groups have drafted their own data policies, imposing far more red tape than needed.

Everyone is trying to help the most vulnerable in our society but they are doing it the long way.

The fear of potentially breaching data regulations and practices comes from a place of misinformation.

If we don’t understand how data and data regulations work, the natural reaction is to become confused or mistrusting of it.

This confusion, uncertainty and fear around data is really unhelpful, and in some cases is hindering efforts to get the necessary aid to people in need.

Instead, by improving our collective understanding of data, groups such as these will be able to see how much of a force for good data can be when co-ordinating efforts to help the shielded population with shopping and other errands.


Benefits of creating and sharing coronavirus data in communities

So, what are the main benefits to these organisations of a joined up, collaborative approach to data? Quite simply, working together makes everyone’s life easier.

Databases created by these mutual aid organisations and local government community hubs to track their operations collect critical data in two areas: volunteers who are able to help and those who are self-isolating who need help.

There will inevitably be gaps, which could lead to them missing an individual in need of aid or lacking the details of enough local volunteers to deliver resources.

By sharing data and co-ordinating with each other, a community hub run by the local authority, for instance, could link up a vulnerable resident on their database with a volunteer in a community mutual aid group.

What many people often don’t realise is that data can be a resource in the same way as manpower or capital.

Global energy demand, data centre energy efficiency
Lots of useful data is being generated by communities in lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic (Credit: Unsplash/NASA)

By pooling this resource, organisations will have access to a more holistic picture of their specific sector or industry.

In this case, it can give organisations across multiple sectors the ability to provide aid to those who need it and reach more vulnerable individuals and households during the pandemic.

Isn’t working together through adversity something we all want?


Getting over the fear of data and being transparent

There are clear benefits to a joined up, collaborative data strategy. But organisations need to first get over their fear of using data.

A good base level understanding of how easy it is to comply with data regulations is an important first step.

There are simple ways in which organisations can ensure they are doing the right thing.

The most obvious is to remember that GDPR requires organisations to explain how they process and use data.

Practically, this means only using data for the reasons they lay out clearly to volunteers.

This seems obvious, but many organisations forget that data is given to them to be used, rather than locked away.

You shouldn’t be selling on volunteer details to, say, third-party car salesmen, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use it to link up volunteers with those in need of aid.

If you aren’t sure, ask! It’s all about transparency, simple clear and concise communications. Real transparency – not 30 pages of terms and conditions transparency.

It’s also important to ask their permission if you want to share their data with external organisations, such as local authority community hubs.

There doesn’t have to be a long legal contract drawn up –  if you’re a local mutual aid group, it can be as simple as sending an email to those who have signed up asking for permission to share their data with other organisations. Bottom line – don’t over-complicate things.

Now is a time when organisations in the voluntary and public sector should be working together to deliver their help to the right places.

Data-sharing and joined-up data strategies will form an important part of this collaboration.

Now more than ever, we need to get over our fear of data and harness its power to serve those most in need.