After years of talking about the benefits of data-driven decision-making, health authorities finally learned to walk the walk during the pandemic, according to a senior health executive who believes agile pandemic-era policymaking has permanently changed the use of data.

“The government always talks about evidence-based decision making,” said ACT Health chief information officer and executive group manager Peter O’Halloran, “but [the pandemic] is the first time I’ve actually seen it in action – where, on a routine basis, you’re actually making a decision based on data sets that we’re bringing together with a day’s notice.”

Increasingly strategic data use had not only enabled health authorities to pivot more quickly in response to changing metrics, but – amidst a doubling or tripling of citizens’ expectations from government and health providers – had increased the importance of ensuring the reliability and availability of the data.

“Patients and citizens simply expect government already knows [their relevant data],” O’Halloran told a panel session at the recent ACS Reimagination Thought Leaders’ Summit 2022, “and then treat them appropriately to enable them to have better population health outcomes.”

The importance of data analytics was recognised early in the pandemic, when clinicians and medical researchers spun up global collaboration networks for monitoring the spread of COVID, patient outcomes, vaccine trial results, and myriad other aspects of co-ordinated global pandemic response that revived the profile of science.

“COVID really has brought this to the fore,” O’Halloran said. “Integrity is now central to what we do, and as we move beyond COVID I can’t see us going back to the old days before that.”

CT Health chief information officer and executive group manager Peter O’Halloran. Photo: Good Thanks Photography

What the customer wants, the data gets

Government bodies aren’t the only ones facing heightened consumer expectations: data, noted Emma Lo Russo, CEO of data analytics firm Digivizer, has become “the foundation to create the experiences that people want to participate in.”

Accelerated digital transformation during the pandemic “forced people to get their data in a better state to create those digital, personalised, relevant experiences, in ways that delight and keep people,” Lo Russo explained.

Yet as the crisis normalised reliance on data, data integrity became even more crucial – and elusive, with one recent analysis finding just 1 in 7 organisations were in charge of their data.

That made the pandemic a trial by fire for many newly-minted chief data officers (CDOs) that were still feeling their way – even as analytics and data governance became table stakes in the rapidly transforming economy.

“Businesses that don’t put that at the forefront will not be able to engage,” Lo Russo said. “There’s no more bricks and mortar – and even the metaverse, and what’s being talked about in terms of AI and the possibilities in virtual streaming, creates this world that we all as leaders need to understand.”

As CDO with real estate giant Domain Group, Pooyan Asgari lived this experience as his firm helped the industry navigate rapidly-changing COVID restrictions that all but shut down property sales in many areas.

“If we didn’t know it already,” he said, “post-pandemic we certainly know that being able to leverage the full depth of the data assets, and signals and information that any business owns, is really the most crucial thing in terms of responding to sudden changes of economic market sentiment, response to the panics of people who follow the ASX index, and so on.”

Digging deep into the data requires widespread cultural change as well as technical knowledge, noted Jolie Baasch, head of data sustainability with property-data giant CoreLogic.

Similar to Domain Group, CoreLogic leaned on its analytics capabilities during the pandemic to improve speed to decision-making, speed to response, and improvements to customer experiences that were increasingly pushed online.

“It’s that quick turnaround based on reliable and sound data,” Baasch explained, “but I like to think of it a bit more holistically: once you’ve collected the data, you need to respect that data.”

“It’s a source of great information, and those of us who work with data are trusted to generate insights and improve outcomes based on that information – so as data professionals, we should be seeking to get the most out of the information that we have extracted and managed and caressed.”

Extracting that value, however, requires much more than simply implementing analytics tools: by fostering a “curious experimental mindset”, she added, the most effective data users mine their stores of visual, free-text and traditional stored data – then work with business leaders to improve internal processes based on those outcomes.

“As we move into this era of data sharing and data collaboration, the information you have can create great insights and improve outcomes for others in other areas,” she said.

“It’s the ethical combination of that data which can lead to great commercial or public good outcomes.”