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UK Government to set up Covid-19 data centre with help from Microsoft, Amazon, Google and more

The UK government is responding to the Covid-19 pandemic by enlisting the help of major tech firms. These firms will provide critical support in setting up a central data centre to combat the virus. 

“To understand and anticipate demand on health and care services, we need a robust operating picture of the virus, how it’s spreading, where it might spread next and how that will affect the NHS and social care services. On the supply side, we need to know where the system is likely to face strain first, be that on ventilators, beds or staff sickness,” notes the Department for Health in a blog post. 

“Different parts of the NHS already capture much of this information, but staying ahead of this virus and flattening the curve will require us to streamline the way we use that information.

“In a crisis response, inconsistencies in this data could cost lives. The last few weeks have seen increased stress on the system with multiple additional requests for information, and a complex and wide array of information sources that must be considered. Without a single place to gather and analyse this data, decision-makers are unable to move as quickly as the response demands; information in spreadsheets held by disparate organisations will be duplicated and rapidly become outdated, leading to inaccurate or incomplete understanding of the situation.”

So what is the government doing to help this situation? Well, NHS England and Improvement and NHSX will create a data centre to bring multiple data sources into a single, secure location.

Data needed to inform the Covid-19 response will come from across the NHS and social care and from partner organisations. It will include data such as 111 online/call centre data from NHS Digital and Covid-19 test result data from Public Health England. 

Data will then be integrated, cleaned, and harmonised in order to develop the single and reliable information that is needed to support decision-making. The results will be presented as dashboards that give a live view of the metrics needed to track and understand the current spread of the crisis, and the capacity in the healthcare system to deal with it. 

All NHS data in the store will remain under NHS England and NHS Improvement’s control. Once the public health emergency situation has ended, data will either be destroyed or returned in line with the law and the strict contractual agreements that are in place between the NHS and partners.

Data that is going to be stored at this single site, includes: 

  • Current occupancy levels at hospitals, broken down by general beds and specialist and/or critical care beds
  • Current capacity of A&E departments and current waiting times
  • Statistics about the lengths of stay for Covid-19 patients

These metrics will be able to be analysed from the national level down to individual NHS Trusts and hospitals. With an accurate view of these metrics in place, the data allows decision-makers to answer questions about the response and explore the impact of different decisions. This will lead to a better understanding of how the virus is spreading, when and where the healthcare system will face strain, and which interventions can best mitigate the crisis. 

Using the dashboards, decision-makers will be able to:

  • Understand how the virus is spreading at a local level and identify risks to particularly vulnerable populations;
  • Proactively increase health and care resources in emerging hot spots;
  • Ensure critical equipment is supplied to the facilities with greatest need; and
  • Divert patients/service users to the facilities that are best able to care for them based on demand, resources, and staffing capacity.

The teams working on the data centre include: 

  • NHSX along with NHS England and Improvement are leading on this project working with multiple partners leveraging internal skills and also skills from the wider NHS family. The team is being led by the Director of AI, Indra Joshi, and Ming Tang, Director of Data/Analytics, NHS England/Improvement
  • Microsoft is supporting NHSX and NHS England’s technical teams, who have built a backend data store on Microsoft’s cloud platform, Azure, to bring multiple data sources into a single, secure location. A G-cloud data processing contract is in place.
  • Palantir Technologies UK is providing the software, Palantir Foundry, that powers the front end data platform. Palantir Foundry, which has been primarily developed in the UK, enables disparate data to be integrated, cleaned, and harmonised in order to develop the single source of truth that will support decision-making. Foundry is built to protect data by design. A G-cloud data processing contract is in place. Palantir is a data processor, not a data controller, and cannot pass on or use the data for any wider purpose without the permission of NHS England
  • Amazon Web Services (AWS) is helping to provide infrastructure and technologies that are enabling NHSX and its partners to quickly and securely launch the new Covid-19 response platform for critical public services at a time when it is important for public and private sector organisations to work together to combat this crisis. AWS has the highest score awarded by the NHS Data Security & Protection (DSP) Toolkit.
  • Faculty is a London-based AI technology specialist that has an existing partnership with NHSX and is now supporting the development and execution of the data response strategy. This includes developing dashboards, models and simulations to provide key central government decision-makers with a deeper level of information about the current and future coronavirus situation to help inform the response.
  • Google: The NHS is exploring the use of tools in the G Suite family to allow the NHS to collect critical real-time information on hospital responses to Covid-19. Data collected would be aggregated operational data only such as hospital occupancy levels and A&E capacity. It will not include any form of identifiable patient data. 

When the pandemic abates and the outbreak is contained, the Department for Health will close the Covid-19 data centre. The Data Processing agreements put in place with the organisations listed above include the steps which need to be taken to cease processing and to either destroy or return data to NHS England and NHS Improvement once the public health emergency situation has ended.

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