MBA student at heart of data-driven fight against COVID-19

05 August 2020

  • Speed and accuracy vital for data to help combat COVID-19
  • Katherine McNeill helps draw up standardisation rules for data
  • Research Data Alliance rules ensure data is shareable and accessible
  • It also means more research can be used by AI and data-mining machines

COVID-19 has been described as the first pandemic with a data-driven response with the speed, accuracy and transparency of data vital in combating the disease.

Every day governments, hospitals and regional and local authorities are releasing masses of data on the number of new cases, tests conducted, deaths and recoveries.

While academics worldwide are collecting extensive data on the pandemic, ranging from its characteristics to its impacts, such as the on people's physical and mental health, economies, communities and to its effective management.

Katherine McNeill, a Distance Learning MBA student and a Research Data Program Manager at Harvard Business School, has been at the centre of making sure the tsunami of COVID-19 research data is open and shareable, using standards and formats so they can be easily accessed by researchers and used by data-mining and AI machines.

The Boston-based American has been part of a global effort by the Research Data Alliance (RDA) to develop international guidelines for researchers and policymakers to maximise timely and re-useable data in responding to the pandemic.

“I was part of the fast-acting all-volunteer RDA-COVID-19 Working Group,” said Katherine. “The work was executed in an intense period over six weeks, with five iterations, all of which were open for public comment.

“There is a tremendous amount of research on COVID-19 being produced. The  guidelines ensure that research on this pandemic (and future public health crises) can be better utilised and more impactful in the short and long-term.

“The group brought together various global experts to produce a report that both details how data from multiple disciplines informs policymakers’ response to pandemics and recommends guidelines on data sharing under the present COVID-19 circumstances. This extends to research software sharing, in recognition of the key role software now plays in analysing data.”

The RDA is a global voluntary group of more than 10,000 members from academia, government and the private sector across 145 countries. Members collaborate with the goal of building the social and technical infrastructure to enable the open sharing and re-use of data.

In a global pandemic where gaining real-time data to track the disease’s spread can be a matter of life and death, ensuring the data collected is of high quality is vital and something the European Union has called for.

Making such high-quality data is available is of utmost importance as countries, including the UK, are finding in their effort to produce contact-tracing apps.

Katherine added: “I decided to join the RDA-COVID-19 Working Group as a way to contribute my expertise and make a difference with the pandemic, ensuring that researchers’ work would be robustly shared for public benefit. The work was divided into sub-groups; I was a contributor to both the Social Sciences and Software sub-groups.

“To make the most of the huge global research effort, findings and data need to be shared rapidly - but not hastily - in a way that enables understanding and reuse. The challenge here is the trade-off between timeliness and precision.

“The speed of data collection and sharing needs to be balanced with accuracy and high-quality data management processes, which take time. Yet effective data management is shown to also save time in the long run for the original research group. 

“A lack of pre-approved data sharing agreements and archaic information systems hinder rapid detection of emerging threats and the development of an evidence-based response.

While the research and data are abundant, there is no universally adopted system or standard for collecting, documenting and disseminating COVID-19 research outputs – this is why our report is so vital in the fight against the pandemic.” 

Katherine is now working with RDA colleagues to provide a model for other communities looking to use data in similar fast-acting global teams.


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