Will big data achieve a higher purpose in a post-pandemic world? 

“If you are reading this on The Economist’s website, do you trust us not to sell that fact to some clever marketer?” This 1998 article popularized a notion that would pervade the industry for decades to come – the tension between the merits of marrying personal data with digital profiles and the inherent privacy risks of granting access to that data.

A surge of preventive privacy regulations has recently emerged, embodied in laws such as General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA). However, the status quo is evolving rapidly as COVID-19 sweeps across the globe.


Prior to this pandemic, the marketing practice of big data analytics was executed almost exclusively in the background, engendering public consternation:



Source: Pew Research

But the new reality of modern life under COVID-19 is inducing nations, NGO’s, companies and individuals to reconsider how we leverage big data & artificial intelligence:


  • Data is now top of mind: According to Google’s analysis of search trends, ‘assembling critical information and content they need to get by’ is a top use case of the internet amidst this period of uncertainty. In response, brands and media outlets produced over 13 million news articles on COVID-19 in the past 30 days – ~5 articles per second.
  • As more data becomes freely accessible, so has computing power and collaboration technology: Since Google announced its public COVID-19 data would be hosted on BigQuery with free computation power, the number of data sets provided by other partners doubled within a week. Simultaneously, thousands of data scientists are sharing algorithms on Kaggle and producing ~120 machine learning models per day to forecast the spread.
  • The proliferation of user generated data is even more pronounced amidst social distancing:


(Courtesy of ListenFirst)


Such data has contributed to applications like epidemiological mapping and anticipating hospital capacity that have been instrumental in informing public policy, business strategy and individual decisions, ultimately shifting our perspectives on the future.

New Rules and Expectations

During what has been described by many politicians as a situation akin to war, companies are currently expected, if not required by law, to assist in the global pandemic fight.


“These (tech) companies already have access to the most detailed information about the population so clearly can yield the most data about social connectivity and potential risks among networks.” – John Brownstein PhD, Epidemiologist & Chief Innovation Officer at Boston Children’s Hospital


The outburst of applications supported by repurposed data have been effective in mitigating the negative effects of COVID-19 by evaluating the success of social distancing, improving diagnostic testing and, in some countries, contact tracing and social behavioral guidance.


The question remains: when this immediate crisis is no longer upon us, will there be a sharp correction back to prior data norms? Or, as a result of big data’s role in our current battle, will the cultural mindset permanently shift towards greater openness? Further, now tuned in to the possibilities of big data to solve real world problems, will we see an explosion of new applications?

Big Shocks Lead to Big Changes

This crisis presents a seminal opportunity for to seize heightened public understanding of the tangible, positive impacts big data can have societally. Building and cementing trust will be no easy feat, but we can learn from social purpose messaging permeating the corporate marketing landscape. Just as firms strive to demonstrate a purpose beyond share price, there is an immense opportunity to yield ‘data purpose.’  And a direct opportunity for those of us in the marketing industry to help.

If consumer data is used for more than what directly benefits marketing efforts, we can cultivate public trust by helping to solve society’s extant ‘crises’ (i.e. economic inequality, mental health, air pollution, and many more) while creating a new PR and marketing paradigm benefiting businesses and humanity.

The application is universal; every company is in some way a data company by both generating and purchasing information. For example, a cadre of CPG companies could integrate anonymous consumer data on the consumption of different classes of foods and drinks with NIH health data to combat childhood obesity or reduce diabetes in vulnerable populations. Integrating ride sharing, hotel stay and police department data could offer a more holistic understanding of domestic violence.

To commence, there are three primary actions brands can take:

  1. Embrace data purpose as a seminal part of ESG commitment: Treat data as an asset to be leveraged beyond proprietary consumption. Proactively consider the extended applications of data and establish a strategy to enrich it for good.
  2. Proactively standardize practices and governance: Universal standards must be adopted by all data analytics providers and implemented in industry software to ensure that data is ready to be mobilized when needed and contribute to the greater good, all while guaranteeing fundamental individual data rights and security.
  3. Tirelessly work towards and communicate the commitment to ensuring data privacy: A recent plan by Google and Apple for COVID-19 contact tracing leverages Bluetooth technology and advanced encryption that actually protects individual data. Such a highly media-facing endeavor exposes consumers to how they could benefit from secured exchange between apps while preserving their privacy.

Only time will tell whether consumers entrust true ‘open source data’ sharing between companies, government agencies, and even cross-border nation states, no matter how effectively that data can be anonymized. Yet the merit of corporations assigning value to data beyond profit margin has never been more apparent. If this paradigm sticks, corporations and society will reap the expanding benefits as exponentially as the data proliferation itself.