Rolls-Royce leads data analytics alliance with its sights set on COVID-19 economic recovery

Aims to limit recessionary impacts, help global pandemic response

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First data was the new oil, then Google said data is more like sunlight. A flood of organisations proposing big data insight into the COVID-19 response would have anyone believe it is the new medicine.

One of the more noteworthy initiatives comes from industrial group and aircraft engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce. It is spearheading a cross-industry group with a mission to harness data and analytics not just to provide timely information about the virus outbreak, but also to mitigate its economic impact.

In a trading statement last week, Rolls-Royce said its R2 Data Labs had "assembled an alliance of leading companies across commerce, banking, travel, technology and research to use data analytics to find new and practical ways to support the global response to the virus".

Although the company has not named the parties it is working with, or details of its technical approach, in a blog published yesterday, Caroline Gorski, director of R2 Data Labs, said the aim is to "bring together datasets from all across industry that have not usually been accessible to the public domain".

"We believe that if we can contribute datasets that wouldn't otherwise be released outside a company or industry's domain, then we can open up the realm of possibility," she added.

She assured that such data would be shared over "secured systems and infrastructure using ISO-approved protocols" and that the group would employ anonymisation, desensitisation and privacy protection services where necessary.

One goal is to look at a broad set of economic, behavioural and sentiment data in the hope of offering insights and practical applications to the global COVID-19 response.

But a second objective is to find and nurture economic green shoots in the wake of the devastation virus lockdowns are causing to businesses worldwide.

Gorski asked: "Can we use [data] models to identify lead indicators signalling economic recovery cycles that global businesses can use to build operating confidence in investment and activities that shorten or limit recessionary impacts?"

She went on to claim the Rolls-Royce data group has already received commitment from data owners, policy-advising partners, secure platform providers, leading analysts and technical resources and is looking for more organisations to join a global programme it calls EMER2GENT.

The intent is to publish "challenge statements" to the group and make data available to help address these challenges.

The group plans to secure data-science resources via academia, businesses and crowd-sourcing. Members should identify, pipeline and publish or signpost relevant open-source datasets that can be included in challenge analysis.

In the face of the unprecedented disruption caused by the virus outbreak, few would be cynical enough to dismiss genuine efforts to employ the latest data, machine learning and analytics techniques to the problem. But maybe too many cooks spoil the broth. Just last week, the UK's Alan Turing Institute called for participation in a very similar-sounding initiative. The problem then is business decision-makers and economic policymakers might be ill-placed to decide which insight to trust – and end up acting on none of them. ®

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