Have we built the data infrastructure and ecosystem needed to tackle pandemics and other dynamic threats?

Andrew J. Zahuranec
Mar 17 · 9 min read

One year since our call for action

PHOTO: Unsplash/Steven Cornfield is licensed under CC0

By Andrew J. Zahuranec, Stefaan Verhulst, and Andrew Young

A year ago, the COVID-19 pandemic became real for people across the world. Though the spectre of the virus had been seen in the days and weeks before, by March 2020, normalcy gave way to a new reality. Billions learned unfamiliar terminology such as “social distancing” and “flattening the curve.” National and local leaders instituted restrictions on schools, businesses, and places of worship. Signs of sickness and death became unavoidable. As the toll mounted, leaders around the world scrambled to find ways to address each of these consequences.

It was in this context that The GovLab and its partners released A Call for Action Toward Building the Data Infrastructure and Ecosystem We Need to Tackle Pandemics and Other Dynamic, Societal, and Environmental Threats. The petition, signed by over 500 data leaders and practitioners across 63 countries, urged organizations to develop the data infrastructure and ecosystem needed to tackle the pandemic and other dynamic threats. To that end, it identified seven actions that data-driven organizations could adopt to make this goal possible. These actions — developing a governance framework, building capacity, establishing data stewards, building a network, engaging people, unlocking funds, and promoting technological innovation — also served as goals that The GovLab pursued its own work.

They are what motivated our mapping of the social, economic, and public health consequences of the crisis. They also spurred us to adopt observatory role toward monitoring how data is being used to tackle COVID-19. Since April 2020, The GovLab has collected over 230 data-driven projects about COVID-19 from around the world in its #Data4COVID19 repository. Today, it is the largest collection of such projects online and serves as a record of how work evolved over the course of the crisis.

It may be too early to assess all the progress made (if any), yet as to recognize today’s anniversary of our call, we want to review all the ways we, at The GovLab have attempted to pursue the call for action in our work and discuss ways we might further address public needs. We hope this blog post will also serve as an invitation from other organizations and data professionals who have signed the call for action to let us know what work they’ve been doing to realize the call for action in their own operations. Through the call for action, we believe it is possible to foster a data ecosystem that works for everyone.

Developing a Governance Framework

Screenshot of the Open Data Policy Lab’s homepage

As data is often sensitive, organizations have an obligation to be proactive in mitigating risks to both data subjects and the public. They also need to identify ways to reflect the public’s attitudes around data, avoiding the reuse of data streams not seen as legitimate or appropriate. As The GovLab acknowledged in its call for action, these efforts can be governed through open governance principles, open data policies, trusted data re-use agreements, transparency requirements, and accountability mechanisms.

Over the past year, The GovLab tried to identify what makes a responsible and effective governance framework. Through its Contracts for Data Collaboration project, The GovLab, TRENDS, University of Washington, and World Economic Forum attempted to demystify data-sharing agreements by providing an analytic framework for them alongside a library of relevant clauses. This work will hopefully reduce the costs associated with creating an agreement.

Through the Open Data Policy Lab, meanwhile, The GovLab, with support from Microsoft, has published various resources to support decision-makers at the local, state and national levels as they accelerate the responsible re-use and opening of data for the benefit of society and the equitable spread of economic opportunity. Connecting the Past, Present, and Future of Re-Using Data to Advance Societal Goals, for instance, describes some of the ways organizations might organize themselves to take advantage of open data.

Building Capacity

The Open Data Framework from the Third Wave of Open Data Toolkit

Second, the call urges organizations to increase their readiness and operational capacity to better re-use and act on data. This capacity building can take many forms. By investing in training and education, decision-makers can ensure the people in their organization possess the skills needed to build and deploy data collaboratives. Capacity building can also be as simple as developing enough knowledge of a topic needed to formulate questions on the types of data use needed by the public.

To train organizations to better re-use data, the Open Data Policy Lab launched an executive training course on data stewardship. Participants, senior decision-makers at various private and public sector organizations, are learning to develop a 21st century data strategy to solve public problems. Noting the ways data resources can inform their day-to-day and strategic decision-making, the course trains participants in ways they can use data to improve how they operate and pursue goals in the public’s interests.

The course supports other recent publications, such as the Third Wave of Open Data Toolkit, which provides decision-makers at data-driven organizations with specific operational guidance on how to foster responsible, effective, and purpose-driven re-use. The toolkit offers a framework to make sense of the present and future open data ecosystem. It also offers eight primers showing how data stewards can tangibly improve their daily and strategic operations.

As part of the COVIDaction initiative, The GovLab is seeking to help build the responsible data capacity of public interest actors in low- and middle-income countries. The Data Responsibility Journey Mapping Tool provides direct support to decision-makers involved in the design or assessment of data collaboratives. It gives them a framework to consider the opportunities and risks that can emerge across the lifecycle of data reuse. Informed by our ongoing research into #Data4COVID19, and a series of user-testing workshops, the GovLab will release the Journey tool in April and support its implementation in development contexts.

Establishing Data Stewards and Building a Network

The logo for the Summer of Open Data

In the third and fourth items of the call, it acknowledges the role of data stewards in promoting effective and responsible data re-use in the public interest. Building on years of prior research on the role of data stewards, the call describes how they “would be mandated to coordinate and collaborate with counterparts toward unlocking the public interest value of data, to protect potentially sensitive information, and to act on insights derived through data analysis.”

In addition to the aforementioned course on data stewardship, The GovLab has continued to develop its offerings through the Data Stewards Network. The semi-weekly #Data4COVID19 newsletters provide data professionals with information on data projects currently underway related to COVID-19.

It has also sought to connect innovators across countries and sectors through panels and events such as the Summer of Open Data. From July through September, The GovLab Co-Founder and Chief Research and Development Officer Stefaan Verhulst spoke with data experts in local and regional governments, national statistical agencies, international bodies, and private companies to understand how to establish a vision of open data focused on collaboration, responsibility, and purpose. The Open Data Policy Lab posted summaries and full videos of each of these conversations on its site.

Engaging People

The Responsible Data Re-Use Framework from the Data Assembly

The fifth item in the call for action concerns organizations’ obligations to people. Acknowledging that the public has often been disengaged in past data work, the call for action argues that governments and corporations should promote user-friendly crowdsourcing and data donation mechanisms. They should also provide opportunities for people to help co-create data collaboratives, providing input into how others use their data and through what arrangements that use takes place.

The GovLab undertook one major initiative to promote better public consultation in data reuse projects through the Data Assembly. This initiative, undertaken with support from the Henry Luce Foundation, sought to solicit diverse, actionable public input on data re-use for crisis response in the United States. It worked with three cohorts representing data holders and decision-makers, representatives of civic rights and advocacy organizations, and New Yorkers from across the five boroughs to yield actionable recommendations on how New York City could use data to respond to COVID-19. Researchers subsequently developed a report summarizing the attitudes of these participants and ways organizations could engage with the public in the future.

These findings informed The GovLab’s engagements with city decision-makers and international stakeholders. In January, Stefaan testified before the New York City Council’s Committee on Technology on how the city could make its data re-use practices more responsible, effective, and legitimate amid the COVID-19 crisis. In February, The GovLab wrote in the OECD’s Participo blog on how the Data Assembly methodology demonstrated the value of stakeholder deliberation in informing the public of data projects and helping leaders understand public concerns.

Unlocking Funds

Screenshot from the #Data4COVID19 Africa Challenge site

Next, the call for action recognizes the need for funding. Data projects can be resource-intensive undertakings and, as such, there’s a need to develop various sources of funding to support them. The call urges funders to support data systems and infrastructure with an eye toward the current challenge and future crises.

To provide funding to support data reuse in places that urgently need it, The GovLab, French Development Agency, and Expertise France launched the #Data4COVID19 Africa Challenge. The challenge welcomed innovators from data-sparse countries across Africa to propose innovative projects that reused data to address the social, economic, and public health consequences of COVID-19. Successful proposals, which are currently being assessed, will receive between EUR 50,000 and 100,000 in funding.

Also as part of the COVIDaction initiative, the GovLab is collaborating with University College London on a study of the efficacy and impact of data prizes and challenges to in spurring responsible and impactful use and reuse of data to address COVID-19. Next month, the partners will publish a detailed analysis of prizes and challenges inlcluded in the #Data4COVID19 Repository and a survey of these projects’ organizers and participants.

Promoting Technological Innovation

Logo of the AI Ethics Course

Lastly, the call for action notes the need for governments and foundations, data scientists and researchers should co-design and co-develop technologies needed to implement data collaboration at scale and in a responsible and sustainable way. By developing privacy-preserving technologies, security technologies, and access-control technologies, organizations can remove barriers to responsible data re-use.

The GovLab has sought to support the development and responsible use of technology through its free, online course, AI Ethics: Global Perspectives. Designed for a global audience, it conveys the breadth and depth of the ongoing interdisciplinary conversation on AI ethics and seeks to bring together diverse perspectives from the field of ethical AI, to raise awareness and help institutions work towards more responsible use. The pandemic features across instructor panels.


The last year has been a busy one for The GovLab and its collaborators. Recognizing the enormous costs that COVID-19 has inflicted across the planet, we’ve tried to reorient our work around it, using the call for action as a guide.

Though we intend to continue to use the call to inform our work, we hope to build on it. Over the next few weeks, we will release reports looking at how particular types of data have informed response efforts. We will also seek to update our topic map on COVID-19 to reflect new circumstances, including the emergence of COVID variants and vaccines. These products will allow us to provide more specialized support and guidance to improve lives.

Until then, we invite you to follow along with all #Data4COVID19 offerings at http://data4covid19.org/. There, you will find links to many of the projects referenced above. We also encourage you to contact us to tell us what you’ve been doing to realize the call for action in your work. Please email datastewards [at] thegovlab.org with some of your projects and, if relevant, we can highlight them here and to people in our network of experts.

Data Stewards Network

Responsible Data Leadership to Address the Challenges of…

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