Confronting Covid-19 with human data opens the door for a new commodity market

Companies across the Bay Area are trying to use technology to combat the epidemic. What they come up with will reshape our relationship to data

A man stands in the middle of a cable car tracks on a near empty California Street in San Francisco, Saturday, March 21, 2020. Some 40 million Californians are coping with their first weekend under a statewide order requiring them to stay at home to help curb the spread of the coronavirus(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
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The entire state of California just joined San Francisco and Silicon Valley in a ‘shelter at home’ order from the state's governor. Restaurants, movie theatres and schools are just some of the parts of our everyday lives that must be temporarily interrupted to curb the spread of Covid-19.

While many Silicon Valley companies had previously institutionalised work from home policies, this shutdown will particularly impact those in the gig economy and part-time workers. Companies across the Bay Area are working together to see how technology can be used to combat the crisis and make sure Americans are ready to go back to work.

One trend that had been making waves across the Valley is how to monetise personal data. It raises the important question of data ownership, access and privacy. But it also presents many opportunities.

Our phones track our steps and many - not just the rich - wear inexpensive wearable devices that can collect our vitals and lifestyle. How could we use this data more efficiently? Could users define proactively what their data can be used for, such as accelerating the cure for Covid-19, or dementia or cancer?

In a scenario where certified applications are launched for these purposes, personal data from individuals' wearable devices or smartphones could automatically be transmitted. This data would be encrypted, anonymised at the source and only the parts that are relevant would be shared, along with the digital rights management rules attached, much like how music is currently bought and sold online. It could then be enforced by blockchain smart-contracts that ensure that data cannot be used for other purposes. We could easily find ourselves in  scenario where individuals can opt in and provide anonymised data for free to accelerate a cure for certain diseases and then make some of our data accessible to businesses for a fee.

With this data available from around the world, intelligent, machine learning algorithms could then identify trends human experts can miss, then raise recommendations for professionals to review and validate. The process could speed up detection in the case of Covid-19.

If someone wants to use the data for commercial purposes, their application has to be certified, similar to the Apple App Store model. Companies could announce the type of data needed, and then owners (or data trusts acting on behalf of the owners) can opt in explicitly, and get paid. We could see the value of data then defined by a commodity exchange, not unlike what we have for oil markets, setting the value of data for specific use cases so that the owners get paid at the moment of consumption, and the financial authorities can tax it at the moment of consumption. Data will be tokenised to provide anonymity of the owner.

This data marketplace possibility could become a reality sooner than we think. This crisis has moved many online. While many are still feeling the biggest effects, there are those looking to our more digital future and asking important questions. Moving forward will require public private cooperation. Governments, private citizens, businesses and NGOs all need to be involved to ensure that all of society can benefit from such advances.

Murat Sonmez is head of the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution at the World Economic Forum