The importance of Data Collaboratives in Covid-19 responses and beyond


Peter Bjørn Larsen

I have worked with the smart city concept, data sharing and data-ecosystems for 13 years and am both happy and frustrated at the same time by the current rise in the use of data in the response to Covid-19. On the positive side, it has created awareness of how data can help to create important insights to solve complex challenges; on the downside, it shows how fragmented data-ecosystems are, and how governments and cities are unable to get quick access to and use all the information that is available through digital infrastructure and external data sources. This article reflects my professional point of view on how we can use the current Covid-19 crisis to better organise the data-ecosystem for future crises, but also how in general we can make better use of data.


If there is one thing, we have already learned about Covid-19 from a smart city perspective, it is that data is extremely important to understand and respond to the current crisis brought on by Covid-19.

National governments and cities worldwide are seeking information, to help understand issues related to Covid-19 such as how the virus is spreading, how to trace infected citizens and how inform citizens in close proximity to these infected persons, analyse how people are reacting to the restrictions set out by governments, and what  the social and economic impacts are. It has been very clear that both governments and cities have not been equipped nor have the resources to source, access or use the vast amount of relevant data available in the private sector or adequately collate different public sector data sources.

The cities with a good digital infrastructure have been able to analyse social distancing and grouping of people in public spaces through optical sensors and data analytics. This can show the impact on the interventions, and also citizens compliance to the restrictions put out to stop the spread of Covid-19. See for examples of this recent research paper from the US[1] showing how smart city and ITS infrastructure was used to enable and enforce social distancing.  

The private sector quickly responded and showed how they were able to provide the information being sought for by the governments and cities. The efforts to get access to the required data have come from a range of projects and offerings, mainly from the private sector in collaboration with the public sector. Below are some examples and types of offerings, which has appeared as a result of the Covid-19 crisis. 

  • Data Exchanges

Companies providing secure data platforms and functions for flexible and secure exchange of data are making their data solutions available to both source and exchange relevant Covid-19 data. Examples of a pro-bono initiative include the French company Dawex[2], and also the European Commission who are both looking to launch a data sharing platform[3]


  • Data Collaboratives

There are examples where companies, organisations and universities are joining forces in a type of Data Collaborative to support governments and cities with information. An example from the UK is Emer2gent[1] where both existing data sharing platforms and collaboratives (ODI Leeds) and the private sector have come together; and also in Canada with the Project Pandemic[2], a Data Collaborative project is being coordinated by the Institute for Investigative Journalism.

  • Company responses

Several companies are providing useful data to show people movement data to understand and track the spread of the virus. Apple/Google[3] and several telco’s have also been providing useful information, such as Telia[4], and many other companies are offering their insights to support the response and understand of Covid-19.


  • Citizens apps:

Many countries have developed citizens apps to trace where infected citizens have been and to warn others who have been in high-risk locations. 

The Norwegian app Smittestopp[5] where citizens voluntarily can download the app, have been downloaded by more than 1.5m citizens out of total population of just over 5 million. A similar app ‘COVIDmeter’ has been created and rolled out in Denmark[6]

In China and South Korea, the apps are more sophisticated and have a lot more functionalities, but also contain more personal data from health authorities, telco’s, central government and more. In Korea, the Corona 100m (Co100) app[7], launched in February using government data, alerts users when they come within 100 metres of a location visited by an infected person. In China they have an app with a traffic light colour QR-code showing if citizens have been infected, been near people infected or if there is no alert. This app is based on a long range of data from both the public and private sector.

All the apps have the same purpose yet are different in their approach which also reflect the privacy laws in the individual countries, albeit anonymised.


So, what is the problem?

For us, who have worked with data-ecosystems and data exchanges for a long time, we know where to find the right data sources, but the organisations asking for the data (mainly governments and cities) will not have access to this overview. There are a lot of single data sources or projects with 

the purpose to create data, but very few of these projects are coordinated and almost none provide the required information.

If we look at the above-mentioned types of projects, they are not coordinated. The reason for this is that the data-ecosystems are severely fragmented and often there is no overview of public sector data sources, never mind the private sector data offerings.

The big question is, where do you go to get the support needed to find the data? This is where Data Collaboratives come into play. This is where the data-ecosystems – public and private sector data sources, IoT solutions, apps, citizens, and data handling experts – collectively and quickly can point out how to find the data, collect it and visualise it for the right purposes, and if done right, in a safe and secure manner.

There are several reasons why Data Collaboratives are needed for the response to Covid-19, future pandemics or major crises. Here are the main reasons:

  • Although there is plenty of data, it is clear that the data landscape is extremely fragmented, which makes it difficult to find and access data. In a Data Collaborative, it will be faster and easier to find the right data sources as they will be present in one common place
  • Inconsistent mix of public and private sector data, priced data, and free data
  • IoT solutions are readily available to implement and use
  • Access to digital tools and support to handle and visualise data
  • Safe and secure platform to source, store and exchange data
  • Common rules on usage, privacy and security
  • Focus on use cases and challenges
  • New opportunities for data exchange business models and partnerships.


In Covid-19 there has been a need for a quick response to get insights, but there has also been a large discussion on privacy and security. Furthermore, much of the data does not really meet the demand from cities and governments. There is a need to build strong data ecosystems and Data Collaboratives to solve these challenges.

Looking forward, the Data Collaboratives are useful for a long range of challenges, such as climate adaption, resilience, but also for smart city projects within mobility, health, energy and sustainability, just to mention some of these. They are also a growth and innovation driver, if this data is made available in a collaborative and secure manner.  

I sincerely hope that Covid-19 can bring more attention to turn all of the information we have through various data sources into a useful tool to handle crises and to build better, safer, resilient and more liveable cities for the future. 

Smart City Insights are working on data ecosystems, data sharing and smart cities for public and private sector partners worldwide. We are happy to share our insights, both related to Covid-19 and work on Data Collaboratives.


[1] https://arxiv.org/pdf/2004.09246.pdf
[2] https://www.covid19-dataexchange.org
[3] https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_20_680
[4] https://emer2gent.org
[5] https://projectpandemic.concordia.ca
[6] https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-52246319)
[7] https://telecomdrive.com/how-telia-is-helping-finnish-government-fight-covid-19/
[8] https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidnikel/2020/04/25/norway-14-million-people-download-coronavirus-tracking-app-despite-security-concerns/#6e3091c47832
[9] https://www.netcompany.com/da/covid-response
[10] https://www.smartcitiesworld.net/news/news/south-korea-to-step-up-online-coronavirus-tracking-5109