Today’s societies produce vast—and increasing—amounts of digital data “exhaust” from daily human activities such as the use of mobile devices, wearables and home sensors; store purchases; and online engagement on social media. In Plos Digital Health, Satchit Balsari, Caroline Buckee, and Andrew Schroeder explain that such data have historically been used by corporations to sell products and make life more convenient (even if in unevenly distributed ways), and in limited academic circles, to solve public heath challenges. During the COVID-19 pandemic, however, technology companies started making aggregated human mobility data- sets widely available, as part of their corporate social responsibility efforts or “data for good” programs.
Many companies, researchers, and policy makers unfamiliar with the academic literature realized—for the first time—the potential use of digital data from mobile phones to monitor social distancing and other emergency public health measures. An avalanche of social distancing dashboards, prediction tools, heat-maps, digital contact tracing programs, and symptom-based COVID-19 prediction apps, followed. Despite the long standing excitement about the potential for digital tools, Big Data and AI to transform our lives, these innovations–with some exceptions–have so far had little impact on the greatest public health emergency of our time