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The way we use data is a life or death matter – from the refugee crisis to COVID-19

An Opinion Piece by Doug Specht and Monika Halkort, published by The Conversation (Insights)

In moments of crisis we often turn to data in an attempt to both understand the situation we are in, and to look for answers of how to escape.

In response to COVID-19, governments around the world have employed algorithms, used data from apps installed on our phones, alongside CCTV, facial recognition and other data gathering tools to fight the pandemic. Data is being used to drive the daily movements of billions of people in a way that many of us have never before seen. People are being instructed to stay home, go to work, wear masks, or send their children to school based on the invisible hand of data.

Yet 2020 has also highlighted the dangers of this. The interpretations and collection of this data are not without their problems – doctors and politicians looking at the same data can draw wildly different conclusions about the right course of action.

Without doubt, we should be harnessing all the tools we can in the fight to save lives, but the pandemic has also brought many issues with data mapping to the fore. COVID-19 disproportionately affects the poorest people in many countries, as well as black and Asian communities. This is is no small part due to data-driven regulations designed to stop the spread of the disease; often modelled on assumptions made by the people who design and run them.

These inequalities already existed, but models that slow a spread through the closing of offices, reduced transport and home schooling put enormous pressures on the poorest and most vulnerable members of society, who are not privileged enough to change their working or living arrangements. As digital technologies are further introduced, such as mobile track and trace, these communities will be marginalised even further. Even in the richest countries, those without a smartphone will be missed from any digital tracing apps designed to protect people.

While these practices are newly confronting to many, such technologies – and their failings – have long been used to shape the lives, and deaths, of millions around the world. In the digital age, mapping and data continue to be seen as a fix-all. More people than ever are subjected to having their lives dictated not by elected officials, but by black box algorithms, maps, and data visualisations. As our attempts to hold the pandemic at bay continue, we must look at lessons from other crises and push for a more just world.

To do this, it is crucial that people understand the slippery quality of data. Statistics seem solid to many people. But data can mislead, and understanding how this happens is a huge step in the right direction of using data to improve the lives of millions of people around the world, and to tackling global crises such as COVID-19.


Doug Specht


Doug Specht is a Chartered Geographer (CGeog. FRGS) and a Senior Lecturer (SFHEA) at the Communication and Media Research Institute, within the University of Westminster. His research examines how knowledge is constructed and codified through digital and cartographic artefacts, focusing on development issues, and he has written on this subject in numerous books and papers. He has also spoken on topics of data ethics and mapping practices at conferences and invited lectures around the world. He is a member of the editorial board at Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture, and sits on BSi committee IST/36 Geographic Information, where he focuses on geographic data in the SDGs. Doug is additionally a trustee of the Santa Rosa Fund, an educational charity; and a core member of the Environmental Network for Central America.


14 November 2020
Published By
The Conversation (Insights)
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CAMRI | The way we use data is a life or death matter – from the refugee crisis to COVID-19 - CAMRI
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