Data science alliance in talks with UK Cabinet Office to help ease economic impact of COVID-19 pandemic

IBM and Google join the Rolls-Royce programme

A cross-industry group started by Rolls-Royce – now including Google and IBM – is in talks with the UK government to use data and analytics to guide policy makers and biz leaders towards the green shoots of economic recovery in the face of the devastating impact of COVID-19.

Rolls-Royce has confirmed to The Reg that the Cabinet Office was one such department to whom it is detailing the group's plans.

Caroline Gorski, director of Rolls-Royce's data science outfit, R2 Data Labs, told The Register that the group, dubbed the Emergent Alliance, is speaking to people who would be able to "contribute to the development of policy."

The group began discussions with the UK government "very early in the process to make sure what we're designing is going to be helpful." When asked if that was with ministers and special advisors, she replied: "They are in all the places you would hope to they might be."

News of the EMER²GENT project first surfaced last week when Rolls-Royce told investors that 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."

Google Cloud and IBM have now joined R2 Data Labs in a group that also includes the Leeds Institute for Data Analytics, data privacy specialist Truata, Open Data Institute Leeds and, of course, Rolls-Royce.

Gorski said she hoped financial services organisations would come on board and that the group was already in discussion with supermarkets and would announce those partnerships "quite shortly."

Emergent Alliance, which runs the EMER²GENT project, is being incorporated as a separate legal entity, and as a nonprofit. The objective of the project is no less than reducing the scale of the recession facing nearly all economies by giving businesses, the government and the public confidence in signs of a recovery.

"Being able to help support and increase confidence in emerging signals that a new normality is beginning to generate is one way that data analytics can help to reduce the scale of the recessionary impact of this crisis," Gorski said.

"Being able to return to economic activity is profoundly connected with confidence levels: for individuals in terms of the things that they choose to plan to do or to purchase; for businesses in terms of the choices that they're able to make about employing new staff, developing new products, and making future-focused investment; and for governments in being clear that the choices they're making about stimulus packages are actually pointing in the right places to maximise the speed, and flow-through economic recovery."

The goal is to bring together datasets that are not normally combined. That might be from retail, travel or financial services; but equally public sources of data from satellite and traffic movement.

Rolls-Royce has some experience in building data models that predict early signs of future events necessary to forecast issues with machinery, as employed in predictive maintenance.

The group has data science teams in London, Berlin and Singapore which operate deep learning, machine learning, convolutional neural networks and generative adversarial networks. The R2 Data Labs team would also contribute data engineering to the project. It is providing roughly 15 to 20 people at the moment.

Gorski said new members joining the group would be expected to bring their own dataset to share with other members and present challenges to work on.

"My experience of working with the data science community is that they love a hard problem and if you give them a wicked problem, they will roll up their sleeves and get involved. If we make sure that the quality of the problem is good enough and the access to the data is effective enough, we could have an amazing community of data scientists supporting this programme, which I think would be really exciting."

In a statement sent to us, Andrew Brown, GM of Europe for IBM's Cloud & Cognitive Software, said: "It is hoped IBM's contribution will help accomplish the identification of proven use cases, to assist where recovery indicators emerge for countries, governments, state agencies and supporting companies to best respond to the next phase of the improvement in the pandemic."

The COVID-19 crisis had "demonstrated the need for governments and their advisers to seek real world insights into mobility, behaviour and human contact networks", said Professor Mark Birkin, Leeds Institute for Data Analytics, University of Leeds.

Access to transactional data for scientific research, business and commerce will provide "mutual benefits," he added. As will "working as part of the alliance to facilitate the secure sharing of data and to connect Emer2gent partners with expertise within the academic community".

The community has already started posting early challenges and results on its blog, including an exploratory analysis of lockdown measures.

But the challenge is vast. Just this week, the UK's Office for Budget Responsibility warned the British economy could shrink by 35 per cent before it returns to growth, with the loss of around two million jobs. Data analytics might help understand the problem, but giving people the confidence to act on a solution is another matter. ®

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