UK’s NHS to collaborate with Big Tech to track the Covid-19 crisis

2020-04-06 17:36:01
UK’s NHS to collaborate with Big Tech to track the Covid-19 crisis
As the number of cases rapidly increases daily, the UK is planning to step up its efforts to manage and contain the spread of the virus via Big Data. UK’s National Health Service is teaming up with leading tech firms to collect crucial information and data and use it to formulate strategies that will help not only tackle the medical equipment shortage but also formulate plans to minimising exposure or contact to the virus

UK’s National Health Service (NHS) has confirmed it is collaborating with leading tech firms to ensure critical information and medical equipment is available to the facilities most in need during the coronavirus outbreak. 

These tech firms would use the data collected from various healthcare institutions to create computer dashboard screens to show the spread of the virus and the healthcare system's ability to deal with it. The data gathered via 111 calls and Covid-19 test results. The first of its kind is expected to be made available to government decision-makers next week.

Four tech firms are expected to take part. Three are US-based: Microsoft, Google and Palantir. The fourth is Faculty AI, whose headquarters is in London, UK

While Amazon was not referenced, a reliable news source has confirmed that they are also involved. The NHS intends to add details of the company's role later.

Many of the details of the scheme were first reported by the BBC on Thursday.

Vulnerable groups

Dubbed the NHSX - the unit responsible for digital innovation - was heading the effort to harness a range of data sources, so that they could be used in combination

The aim is to create dashboards that draw on the information as soon as it becomes available in order to help the government and health chiefs to:

  • - Understand how the virus is spreading and identify risks to particularly vulnerable groups of people
  • - Proactively increase resources in emerging hot spots
  • - Ensure critical equipment is supplied to hospitals and other facilities in greatest need
  • - Divert patients to the facilities best able to care for them based on demand, resources and staffing capacity

It added that the data and information would largely be drawn from existing data sources in relation to the Covid-19, and would be anonymised so that individual patients could not be identified. It said this would involve removing names, addresses and other identifiers, and replacing them with a “pseudonym".

In time, it said, the aim was to provide a separate dashboard that could be viewed by the public.

Regarding the tech firms, it said:

  • - Microsoft had built a data store on its Azure cloud computing platform to hold the information in a single, secure location
  • - Palantir was providing use of its Foundry software tool, which analyses records to deliver a "single source of truth"
  • - Faculty AI was developing the dashboards, models and simulations that decision-makers would be presented with
  • - Google's G Suite of productivity apps might be used to collect and aggregate real-time operational data such as occupancy levels and A&E capacity

Privacy campaigners had raised concerns after details of the initiative leaked earlier in the week.

The NHS offered reassurance on the matter by saying that the data and any personal information would remain confidential and protected. In addition, the health service stressed that it would remain in control of the records, and not the tech companies.

"Once the public health emergency situation has ended, data will either be destroyed or returned in line with the law and the strict contractual agreements that are in place between the NHS and partners," it added.

The NHS has also attempted to quell public’s fears by saying that the code and data involved would be made open source as far as possible, meaning that digital rights experts should be able to check the extent to which people's personal information has been protected.

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