Throughout the coronavirus crisis, Fitbit, the wearable technology company, has published insights into how restriction of movement orders have affected the daily habits of its 30 million active users around the world.
If the story of the pandemic is often told in statistics – more than seven million cases have been confirmed in over 200 countries and territories since the health crisis began less than six months ago – this data helps build out one strand of that narrative.
The first freely available data release was on March 23, when stay at home orders were about to grow stronger in the UAE, but in southern Europe, lockdowns were already widespread and the numbers revealed steep declines in user step counts.
Users in Spain recorded 38 per cent drops in steps in the week ending March 22 when compared to the same period in 2019. In Italy, step counts were 25 per cent down among active users, reflecting the severity of the health crisis that gripped both countries in those spring days.
Fitbit produced other findings, including that young people's activity was most affected by shelter at home orders and, somewhat counter-intuitively, that despite heightened levels of anxiety associated with the pandemic, users in the US slept more in April than in the same month in 2019. The analysts suggest that not needing to wake up early to commute to work or to do the school run may have accounted for that uptick in rest.
None of the above is meant to trivialise the global health crisis by reducing it to step counts; rather it is to show the power of large data pools and the multiple insights that can be extracted from them. Today’s sleep scores might be tomorrow’s health solutions.
Big data has, of course, been shaping our lives for years. More than a decade ago, for instance, Google was already able to predict the spread of seasonal flu by analysing the frequency of searches related to symptoms, susceptibility to infection and so on.
In 2020, data has allowed scientists, analysts and policymakers to constantly update their understanding of the spread of coronavirus and to react accordingly. The fact that some of those choices have turned out to be wrong is not the fault of the data itself, although it may reveal a flaw in the modelling.
Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and fellow academic Kenneth Neil Cukier wrote an absorbing text on the broader subject titled Big Data in 2013.
Back then, the pair predicted that data was “poised to shake up every aspect of society”; few would disagree with them now, but they also delivered a strong liability vision about the handling of it.
The authors made the point that in the former East Germany of the 1980s, the state’s secret police used to employ thousands of people to spy on citizens, recording details on at least “39 million index cards and 70 miles of documents”.
But the data the Stasi collected at huge cost to the state represents a tiny drop in the deep information pool that is now held on almost every global citizen by tech giants. Worse still, for the most part, the data we offer up in the 21st century is often unwittingly surrendered in the form of social media posts, smartphone apps and browser searches for it to be monetised.
While the privacy issue has been moot for several years, the coronavirus crisis has, perhaps, reinforced the view that technology can help us win the battle over Covid-19. It may also present the only viable path forward in the short-term, especially in the absence of a vaccine.
Speaking earlier this week, former UK prime minister Tony Blair called on the international community to consider personal "digital identities" as a method to kickstart economies idling under lockdowns and low consumer confidence.
“Unless you're able to record people's disease status in a way that can be used, it's going to be difficult to go back to anything like a near normal,” he said in relation to international trade and travel.
Wearable technology may provide a key part of that digital armoury and could also prove more effective than track-and-trace apps, because of the volume of data it can record and the insights it can provide.
As The National reported this week, Apple is looking at ways its watch could be used to detect heart problems and Fitbit is working with research partners to see if its technology can help provide specific health alerts. Both companies have vast mines of data to tap.
Prof Michael Snyder, chair of genetics at Stanford School of Medicine, said that smartwatches make at least 250,000 measurements a day and could be used to notify users if their temperature or heart rate changed, in effect quickly moving the track-and-trace model towards a sophisticated and accurate early warning system.
Returning to Mr Schonberger and Mr Cukier, their book wondered if there would be any space left for uncertainty and intuition in the big data future.
The past few months have provided an emphatic answer, and that answer is yes.
When certainty recedes so do economies and communities. When we rely too heavily on intuition we inevitably make mistakes.
Wearable technology, smart AI solutions and usable digital identities may be the best ways to restore confidence and get the world back on track.
Nick March is an assistant editor-in-chief at The National