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Measuring and guiding: How data has contributed to tackling the health crisis

Deux femmes scientifiques dans un laboratoire, discutant de données médicales.

“Paradoxically, the crisis has also had positive impacts. It has accelerated innovation”


Data and AI have been at the heart of the scientific response to the COVID-19 pandemic, enabling epidemiological models to be developed and changes in population mobility to be measured. This is one of the key findings of the white paper recently published by Sofrecom.

How can we predict the evolution of a pandemic — a complex phenomenon involving a mix of biological and social considerations? How can we provide the political authorities with matrices to assess the effectiveness of health measures? Data and AI, or Data Intelligence, offers concrete solutions to these new challenges imposed by the health crisis, including epidemiological forecasting models, data analysis of the French population’s mobility and spatiotemporal mapping of the spread of the virus.

“The pandemic has had catastrophic consequences for our economy and society. But we had to confront it and find innovative solutions as a matter of urgency. And, paradoxically, the crisis has also had positive impacts. It has accelerated innovation and strengthened the use of digital tools, including data and AI,” said Samia Bendali-Amor, IT & Network Services Director at Sofrecom.

Measuring population mobility

Mobile data analysis has emerged as an essential tool since the start of the pandemic. In 2020, while countries around the world were making the decision to lock down one after another, there was an urgent need to measure changes in population mobility in order to ascertain the extent to which these restrictions were being adhered to and their effect on the spread of the virus. Cell phone data has proven to be an essential tool for studying mobility, with a 102% penetration rate and 5.1 billion unique subscribers worldwide. 

Guiding public decision-making

A large community of scientists and private companies has mobilized to make this data readily available. In March 2020, the INSERM-Orange Labs consortium launched the EVALCOVID-19 project, funded by the French National Research Agency, to study changes in the mobility behavior of the French population and its impacts. For instance, analyzing anonymized cell phone data through Orange Business Services’ Flux Vision tool revealed a 65% decrease in mobility during the first lockdown, particularly work- and school-related travel. It also noted that this decrease varied according to geographical and socio-economic factors. This work led to an article being published in the prestigious scientific journal, The Lancet Digital Health. Flux Vision has also been used by the authorities in other European and African countries to guide health decisions.

The ethical issue at the heart of the matter

“While the current crisis provides an opportunity to demonstrate the value of these mobility indicators, it also highlights issues surrounding their governance,” says Stefania Rubrichi, Data and AI Expert at Orange Innovation. “These indicators, which were developed based on our customers’ habits, are indeed very sensitive in terms of how the data is collected, stored, used and even shared. All of this raises legitimate legal, economic and ethical questions.” In order to address these questions, Orange set up a Data and AI Ethics Council in March 2021.

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