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Planning for the Future – Data-driven decisions

Greg MacDonald and Lara Prentice

Award-winning science communicator and COVID-19 modeller Shaun Hendy joined us for Planning for the Future: Data-driven decisions, a webinar on the importance of data for long and short-term planning in December 2021.

Hendy, the founding director of Te Pūnaha Matatini, the Aotearoa New Zealand Centre of Research Excellence for Complex Systems, discussed the organisation’s role in helping the government predict the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in New Zealand since the April 2020 lockdown.

He explained that predicting the spread of COVID-19 depended greatly on gaining access to real-time data, a significant hurdle at the early stage of the pandemic with existing systems and capacity struggling with this unforeseen development.

And while the Te Pūnaha Matatini team faced a steep learning curve, their experience gathering and interpreting data to inform government decision making offered critical learnings for future pandemics and long and short-term planning in broader economic and societal contexts.

In the following Q&A session, Hendy addressed the broader implications for real-time data modelling initiatives. Hendy is already delving into this arena with Toha. A data-driven impact investment marketplace, Toha helps private sector businesses find opportunities to invest in green initiatives and collect data about the impact of the investments that can be attributed back to their organisation

“That’s a big missing piece of the puzzle at the moment. There’s money sitting there that can’t find the opportunities to go green. Some say, ‘let’s just shovel the money out the door, what can it hurt?’ but you can end up with no evidence it made any difference at the end. And that means you can’t persuade people you made things greener, and you can’t invest in the right activities that might go greenest.

“So, I think there’s a big opportunity around making the economy more sustainable and the way it interacts with the environment. But in all sorts of spaces, we can be using data more effectively. The opportunities are really endless.”

For organisations looking to start using their data more effectively in their planning, Hendy had some critical takeaways for using data both effectively and ethically.

Map out the data you have so it’s available when you, or someone else, really needs it.

“Do a stocktake of what data you’ve got, map it and publish that map so that people can see what data you’re holding. And if they need it in an emergency, they can approach you. Then create sandpits to enable researchers to upskill and become more expert in understanding your data.

“Something we’ve worked really hard on is making sure all our advice is being published. Particularly data that might concern groups more vulnerable in an infectious disease outbreak, such as Māori and Pacific communities.

Ensure a diverse range of viewpoints (e.g., age, gender, ethnicity, experience) when interpreting your data to avoid confirmation bias.

“If you haven’t got diverse eyes, looking on your data, it’s easy to fall victim to confirmation bias and to end up making incorrect decisions. You’ll feel they are data-driven but actually, it’s an interaction between you and your data, and your biases are really driving you.”

Private sector organisations should treat data with the same respect expected of the public sector.

“Whereas government often compels you to produce data, in the private sector, it’s really about a relationship between a customer and that private sector entity, and it’s a more consensual relationship, generally. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the customer always fully understands that data has been collected.”

Private sector organisations should also take care with their data transparency to maintain a competitive advantage.

“Being open and transparent about data has benefits but also downsides. As a private sector organisation, you won’t always have the same sort of consent from your customers, and of course, there are competitive drivers. You don’t necessarily want to be completely transparent about the information you hold, because it might contain some important competitive advantages.”

You can watch the full webinar including the Q&A session here.

9 February 2022