Australia's Data Opportunity In Tackling COVID-19

Apr 22, 2020

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In the fight against COVID-19, the ability to share and analyze data is a powerful tool. Australians trust their federal government with their data more than people in the US, UK, Germany, Spain, or Singapore, according to a recent Oliver Wyman Forum survey. To take advantage of that trust, the government needs to address concerns about how data is used and the level of privacy that people are afforded.

“Our survey suggests a critical design feature will be the balance between Australian’s willingness to share information and the level of privacy they are afforded.”, said David Howard-Jones, partner at Oliver Wyman.

High trust in government

According to the survey, around 40 percent of Australians would be comfortable sharing a positive coronavirus test with federal or local government officials. This figure was the highest across the six countries surveyed. These societal attitudes may open up more powerful, data-driven approaches to accelerate the fight against COVID-19. The federal government is expected to propose the launch of an app modelled on Singapore’s TraceTogether, which sends text alerts to people who come in close contact with infected persons.

Until now, Australia has lagged many nations in the use of technology and personal data to fight COVID-19. The country has instead relied upon anonymized, highly aggregated mobile data from telecommunications companies and transport apps to trace its citizens’ movement and compliance with social distancing recommendations.

While aggregate data has its uses and over half of Australians surveyed were comfortable with the idea, it’s not enough to help the community make practical choices. “For example, some localization data is published on government websites which enables the hotspot of coronavirus cases around Sydney’s Bondi-Waverley area to be seen. But those public sources are insufficiently detailed to be actionable — Bondi residents cannot avoid Bondi”, said Howard-Jones.

This should change. The survey found that Australians are more willing than the average across other jurisdictions to share data to fight the pandemic, particularly preventative measures such as pooling biometric data to improve airport screening or financial transaction data to trace points of contact in shops. 

Clear purpose needed

Policymakers need to be careful not to push too far. While 64 percent of Australians were willing to share health information to beat the virus, only 37 percent were comfortable sharing individual mobile location data. That sentiment poses a challenge for the government’s plan to develop a contact-tracing app similar to the ones that Singapore and several European countries have adopted.

The app the federal government has been considering would require the voluntary participation of users, just as Singapore’s does. But Australia is reportedly targeting to get 40 percent of the population on board, twice the rate of Singapore. “Our survey suggests this target is optimistic. If participation tracks the relative willingness to share mobile location data, the Australian app may struggle to achieve 15 percent uptake”, said James Gordon, Principal at Oliver Wyman.

Set against this, the survey found Australians are most willing to share data where the purpose is clear and there are specific boundaries around the scope of data collection. Where the questions were most targeted — for example, we found that 45% of Australians were willing to share biometric data to improve airport screening — support was consistently at its highest. “To give themselves the best chance of community support, policymakers should be clear on the application and limitations of individual mobile data usage, and whether such data-sharing will be rolled back once the crisis recedes”, said Gordon.

Policymakers should not fear making a case for expanding their request for data in order to win the battle with COVID-19 and allow individuals to better protect themselves and each other. However, calibrating the use of that data to match with community willingness to share them is critical. “Ask for too much, and uptake of the tools is likely to be sharply reduced”, said Howard-Jones.

About the survey

The Oliver Wyman Forum surveyed roughly 3,600 people online across six countries – the US, UK, Germany, Spain, Australia, and Singapore from March 21 to March 27.

About the Oliver Wyman Forum

The Oliver Wyman Forum is committed to bringing together business, public policy, and social enterprise leaders to help solve the world’s toughest problems. The Oliver Wyman Forum strives to discover and develop innovative solutions by conducting research, convening leading thinkers, analyzing options, and inspiring action on three fronts: Reframing Industry, Business in Society, Global Economic and Political Change.

Together with our growing and diverse community of experts in business, public policy, social enterprises, and academia, we think we can make a difference. For more information, visit www.oliverwymanforum.com

About Oliver Wyman

Oliver Wyman is a global leader in management consulting. With offices in 60 cities across 29 countries, Oliver Wyman combines deep industry knowledge with specialized expertise in strategy, operations, risk management, and organization transformation. The firm has more than 5,000 professionals around the world who work with clients to optimize their business, improve their operations and risk profile, and accelerate their organizational performance to seize the most attractive opportunities. Oliver Wyman is a wholly owned subsidiary of Marsh & McLennan Companies [NYSE: MMC]. For more information, visit www.oliverwyman.com. Follow Oliver Wyman on Twitter @Oliver Wyman.