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The power of data in times of crisis | New

The CrisisReady program builds a platform of data, analytics and tools to guide decision-making during public health emergencies

November 19, 2021 – During epidemics, hurricanes and other public health crises, real-time data can help save lives, but only if governments and response agencies know how to use it. At the onset of the pandemic, researchers at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health helped develop a global network of experts — the COVID-19 Mobility Data Network (CMDN) —to act as intermediaries in the data pipeline between technology companies and public health decision makers. Now they have extended this work to Ready for the crisis, a platform that aims to integrate data-driven decision making into local disaster planning around the world.

Led by Caroline Buckee, professor of epidemiology, and Satchit Balsari, assistant professor in the Department of Global and Population Health, the program involves researchers from the CMDN and others who can work with local partners during a period of time. crisis to provide data, situation reports and data visualizations for the area, training and support.

“I really believe it’s the responsibility of researchers who study public health to take the science they develop and try to apply it to the populations most affected by the problem,” Buckee said. “CrisisReady represents our efforts to make our science actionable in the real world. “

Hurricanes and containments

Buckee has worked for the past decade building systems to track and predict the spread of deadly infections such as malaria and Ebola. Much of this work has involved using aggregated location data and privacy-protected cell phones to study how and why diseases spread.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017, Buckee and Balsari collaborated to uncover the storm’s true toll. While the Puerto Rican government initially attributed only 64 deaths to the hurricane, researchers found that thousands more could be indirectly linked to it, including deaths of people with chronic conditions who were unable to access necessary medical care. The study and the media attention that followed prompted the government to significantly revise the death figures, and also sparked conversations about how to prepare for and quantify the impact of natural disasters, not just in terms of mortality, but also the long-term consequences for medical problems. vulnerable populations.

When COVID-19 hit, Buckee, Balsari and others in their fields quickly realized that mobility data would be a useful tool to help policymakers determine the impact and effectiveness of measures such as lockdowns and travel restrictions, and to help predict what could happen next with the pandemic.

The CMDN was formed as a group of five researchers from the School and the non-profit humanitarian organization Direct Relief, before becoming more than 100 researchers and decision-makers around the world. The network met weekly via Zoom to share methods and data resources, and to connect researchers with policy makers. The group eventually worked with over 60 municipal, state and national governments.

Buckee said the biggest lesson she learned in the process was that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for using data in a crisis. The tools must be adapted to each context and be able to evolve according to changing needs. In short, she said, “to have an impact on policies, you really have to have humans in the loop.”


Researchers’ efforts on COVID-19 have led to additional work during wildfires in California and hurricanes on the Gulf Coast, at the request of local health officials and federal response agencies. It became clear that the lessons they learned during the pandemic were applicable to other types of disasters. Partnering with Andrew Schroder, vice president of research and analytics at Direct Relief, with whom they started CMDN, they launched CrisisReady in January and continue to develop the platform.

Balsari explained that a complex process is involved in linking raw data to a decision in a public health context. Data should be collected from multiple sources and systems created for how data is processed, kept private and shared. Then, it needs to be analyzed and presented in a way that is useful to inform policies around a specific public health outcome. As the platform grows, the group plans to create educational tools to empower more people to do the work locally.

“We’re heading into a decade where we’re going to see an exponential growth rate in data,” Buckee said. “The goal is for CrisisReady to help policymakers and scientists find safe and sustainable ways to use this data for the public good. “

—Amy Roeder

Photo: iStock / Dramaguy11