Data in the Post-Viral World

“may you live in interesting times”

The earth turns, and suddenly everything’s closed. Perhaps you still have to commute, maybe you get some more time at home to examine your life. I don’t aim to understate the severity of a dangerous virus; thousands have died, and odds are many more will follow (pursuant to measures taken).

Yet we still find ourselves looking forward to the future and how it can be improved: it is terribly human to search for the positive in uncertain crisis.

I work with data of all sorts (I’m fond of faces and graphs). In response to the growing pandemic, there’s been a tremendous rush of activity from data scientists around the world. Most of it is quite helpful, though some of it may be less so. There’s a very valid argument to be made regarding the signal:noise ratio of a sudden flood of insights (generated with less-than-accurate data) hampering public perception of reality.

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But on the whole, I still believe in the spirit of analysis as a valid response to problems on a scale the human brain isn’t designed to perceive. Data science is a fine way of discovering odd, useful relationships about the way things work — given enough information to do so. So before we ask “what can we learn from this”, it’s good to ask “what information are we going to gather?”

The world is off-balance

The Information Age has never dealt with something like this, and that’s interesting.

This pandemic is a wrench hurled into the heart of our globalized, hypercapitalist machine. People can’t work or socialize as normal, and suddenly everything’s up in the air. Politicians and corporate oligarchs generally possess the instinctual self-preservation to understand that a panicked citizen will look out for their own interests, whether that means massive unemployment or refusing to pay rent. You might even find a relief check in your mailbox soon (a pittance compared to the bailouts for the rich).

We’ve had regional wars, recessions, terror attacks and such, but the “modern world” has never dealt with havoc of this magnitude. A delightful axiom I’ve found is that people in trouble have a very good memory. In other words, this chaos is generating a hell of a lot of data.

Moreso, disruption will tend to generate accurate data, because there’s plenty of people whose livelihoods may depend on the accuracy of said data. So in the interest of building a brighter, more capable future, let’s talk about data sources that grow richer with every day of this crisis.

Intelligence from turmoil

The immediate, and perhaps most far-reaching effect is economic disorder. Trade and supply chains have been shaken up — procedures that we took for granted must be reevaluated.

Due to its rapid state-led industrialization and neoliberal approaches around the world, China has been the heart of global manufacturing for a long time. Now its numbers are in deep jeopardy; exports are predicted to drop by 20–45% in the second quarter. The market for “nonessentials” is taking a plunge. Supply chains around the globe are in disorder, because nobody predicted (or bothered to truly prepare for) a paradigm shift of this nature. Businesses will soon be asking “how crisis-proof is this product strategy?”. Customer behavior will remain altered far after the virus dies down.

Incentives are altered, and every assumption about purchase habits, advertising and consumption, every basic economic activity is turned upside-down. Interesting questions begin to rise in the backs of our mind, regarding what we truly need to be fulfilled, what activity actually yields satisfaction and joy.

Social scientists will revel in abundant data on human behavior under social isolation. Did lockdown intensity and duration have lasting impacts on mental health and socioeconomic attitudes? How did media coverage impact grocery/utility purchases in different regions?

Governments find their medical systems gravely underprepared in both supplies and capacity. The number of preventable deaths will rise, and unpleasant numbers will be traced back to corners cut in the past. Medical data of this pandemic will be studied for decades, and larger questions about healthcare may soon come to public attention.

As governments and businesses adapt to a riskier reality, many industries will see lasting organizational change, simply because people think “it could happen again”.

Disruption is an opportunity to observe a system in change. When that system is the entire world, we have the chance to gain valuable insight on everything from human group behavior to the validity of various economic policies.

The best optimism is firmly rooted in cynical belief. This world is fragile, but still too resilient to stop for a plague, though it may change greatly. As we weather difficult times, a voice deep in our hearts will always ask “How can we take this and make things better?” We’ve gotten this far because we understand that each new misery can be used to avoid later disaster.

Written by

data scientist, machine learning engineer. passionate about ecology, biotech and AI. https://www.linkedin.com/in/mark-s-cleverley/

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