Data can prevent the next global health emergency. Here’s how

The sharing of data and its integration into decision-making will be a gamechanger. Image: Photo by Graham Ruttan on Unsplash

Hemant Ahlawat
Senior Partner, McKinsey & Company
Lars Hartenstein
Global Leader, McKinsey Health Institute, McKinsey Health Institute (MHI)
Mitchell Cuddihy
Engagement Manager, McKinsey & Company
Dame Sally Davies
Master of Trinity College, Cambridge
Connor Rochford
Trinity College, Cambridge
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  • Unnecessary uncertainty has surrounded much of the decision-making throughout this pandemic.
  • We can mitigate the fallout of future health emergencies through better use of use of data and advanced analytics.
  • The Trinity Challenge is an alliance of public and private sector organizations, trying to put systems in place to streamline data-driven decision-making.

Pause for a moment to imagine — what if the world had the infrastructure to identify an emerging or re-emerging infectious disease threat before it became widespread? What if decision-makers could rapidly analyse which targeted, coordinated interventions were most effective in our response, and how these could be implemented at the lowest social and economic cost? What if they could take a data-driven approach to initiating a social and economic recovery in a way that did not exacerbate existing inequalities?

If all of this had been in place, this pandemic would feel very, very different.

The sensitive and sophisticated use of real-time, granular, accurate data from multiple sources and sectors is limited, to the point that identifying, responding to and recovering from health emergencies will continue to be constrained until our use of data and analytics is radically improved.

Instead, unnecessary uncertainty has surrounded much of the decision making throughout the pandemic. Those developing and monitoring the implementation of health and economic interventions would benefit from access to a range of different data sources and the analyses.

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For example, what if decision-makers had access to the analysis of mobility data to enable assessments of how the movement of people through a population can contribute to disease spread? What if they could obtain and analyse monetary transactions to enable estimates of the effects of an outbreak or epidemic on economic outcomes? Some of this data is publicly available, while some is held by private institutions where the data typically has a commercial value.

A recently published report, Better decisions to protect against health emergencies, outlines how COVID-19 has highlighted the pre-existing weaknesses in our data sharing, analytics and learning systems. There are three core lessons we should take away:

  • Humanity needs to get the right people the right access to the right data at the right time
  • We need to improve our ability to share insights and information across disciplines, departments, sectors and geographies
  • We need to utilize the data available to make fact-based decisions to improve health, economic and social outcomes.

These lessons point to a stark reality. The sensitive and sophisticated use of real-time, granular, accurate data from multiple sources and sectors is limited, to the point that identifying, responding to and recovering from health emergencies will continue to be constrained until our use of data and analytics is radically improved.

The data is there. It just needs to be used more effectively. Image: McKinsey & Co

COVID-19 is not the last health emergency. Instead, it is likely that humanity will see a pandemic or health emergency at least once every five years. We may not be able to avoid this risk entirely, but we can mitigate the fallout.

One example of an initiative aiming to do this, is The Trinity Challenge (TTC). McKinsey & Company is a founding member of The Trinity Challenge a coalition of more than 20 international, leading public and private organizations tasked to answer these kinds of questions. Members include The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Facebook, Imperial College, GSK, Google, University of Cambridge and Microsoft.


These organizations all understand that boundary-spanning insights and innovations will find unique solutions that make use of data and advanced analytics to help us better prepare.

The efficient and effective use of data requires three early actions for global leaders, who can:

1. Encourage the creation of reusable, sustainable, and easy-to-access data assets that drastically reduce the time needed for decision making.
Research shows that effective data governance can alleviate these barriers and implementing data-quality controls can improve productivity and performance significantly. A willingness to share more information from these data sources across organizational and sectoral boundaries is needed. The Trinity Challenge data catalogue and the Swiss Re Risk Resilience Center are both a step in this direction, encompassing health and non-health data, from public and commercial sources. The aim is to enable analysts and researchers to win back valuable time in deriving actionable insights from different sets of data.

2. Broaden the breadth and depth of commercial data that is accessible.
When lives and livelihoods are at risk, regulatory hurdles should be addressed to support greater accessibility to public and commercial health and non-health data. Privacy preserving and security-enhancing technologies exist, including Google’s differential privacy platform that unlocks data while safeguarding privacy or solutions that have long been used in commercially competitive industries like civil aviation. Technology is not a barrier, but can be an enabler.

3. Bring data providers and decision-makers into closer contact to promote more efficient analysis and effective sharing of information.
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the fact that we have some way to go towards creating a common standard and principles for how data is governed and accessed in a health emergency. This can be addressed by creating a tighter feedback loop between providers and decision-makers and embedding a new approach to how we value public and commercial data.

The COVID-19 pandemic will continue to devastate lives and livelihoods for months to come. While fixing the immediate health crisis rightly remains the priority today, we are already thinking of ways to improve the response to the next global health crisis. To this end, the sharing of data and its integration into decision-making will be a gamechanger.

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