Insight Health: CEO Noel O’Connor on data and the pandemic: ‘Insight is at the heart of the national COVID response’

Submitted on Thursday, 27/01/2022

Pandemic Response a Great Leap Forward for Smart Government

Insight CEO Prof Noel O’Connor  on the critical role of data science in the pandemic, and how Insight was at the heart of the national response

The pandemic created an urgent and system-wide need for connected information. How was the virus moving? Which hospitals saw surges and why? How did the virus behave in our schools and what was the local impact? What did the public think about restrictions and what were the practical challenges of  lockdowns? We suddenly needed a connected view of our societal systems to make rapid and intelligent decisions.

 Powerfully, this data would also offer the means to make predictions about the virus. Data modelling emerged as a potent weapon in the defence of our health systems.

Connecting data, however,  is more challenging than it sounds. Data is sometimes compared to oil, but in its crude form it doesn’t mix easily. Hospital admissions information is not readily comparable to school attendance records. Airport passenger data looks very different from PCR testing centre data.

Ireland, like every other jurisdiction on the planet, urgently needs a comprehensive data infrastructure – a national data pipeline – that will allow for the safe, efficient and ethical sharing of information between systems. During the pandemic, Insight, our national data research centre, stepped up and developed critical components of the necessary infrastructure to help us ‘see’ COVID 19 in our society.  We have been at the heart of the national pandemic response.

One example is our contribution to the the Irish Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group (IEMAG) established to provide statistical and mathematical modelling support and advice to the Chief Medical Officer and the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET).  Senior Insight investigators, supported by other colleagues and more junior members of their  research teams, have worked tirelessly as members of IEMAG since its inception. Their work provided crucial input that fed directly into government policy for COVID, including advice on standing up, and standing down, restrictions to reduce the spread of the virus.

This work also revealed the true extent of the challenge facing Ireland of connecting health data. Recognising this,  I worked with the Chair of IEMAG and SFI colleagues to respond to this call to action, which ultimately led to the formation of a new IEMAG Working Group on data engineering; the initial spadework of a national health data infrastructure. It became clear that this was a missing puzzle piece in the national fight against COVID and indeed our preparedness for future pandemics. It has since led to the successful embedding of a senior Insight researcher within the Heath Services Executive, as the first step in a long-term initiative to grow data analytics capability within the Irish health system. 

Another example is our response to a specific request from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine during the height of the first lockdown to help address the problem of COVID outbreaks in meat processing plants. Another is the work of Insight in forming an expert advisory group to advise the HSE on various design aspects of the COVIDtracker App. We also supported a series of rolling national citizen surveys to help society understand the public’s response to the reality of restrictions and lockdowns. We worked with Dublin Airport Authority to understand how social distancing could be implemented in the airport as part of the effort to re-open international travel.  Of course, it’s important that we learn from the experiences of COVID and are better prepared for any future pandemic. Insight is leading the way on this through our coordination of the high profile PANDEM-2 EU project that is ​​ developing new solutions for efficient, EU-wide pandemic management. These are only a few of the ways in which Insight contributed to the national response.

In 2013, Science Foundation Ireland created Insight from existing  data research hubs in the universities. The idea was to marshal Ireland’s extensive but diverse data research forces into a network that would amount to more than its parts. Cometh the hour, and the COVID 19 emergency demanded precisely that, Ireland had at its disposal a networked team of data scientists ready to respond at a national level to a national emergency. When government figures and public bodies came to Insight with urgent data engineering and analysis needs, we were ready.

In the last two years we have been part of many agile collaborations with State agencies and government departments, building a model for future national responses in health and other sectors. These partnerships have seeded an enlightened network that holds a great deal of promise for Ireland’s health system, for Smart Government, and a new national data infrastructure. It’s an exciting moment and we are more than ready to pick it up and run with it. 

February is Health Month at Insight. Stay tuned for more stories of Insight research that is driving connected health innovation