Public-health agency to continue using mobile-network data to track population movement
UKHSA signs deals with BT and O2 to provide insights into ‘behavioural changes post-pandemic’
Credit: Rudy and Peter Skitterians/Pixabay
Government’s public-health agency will continue to use data from mobile-network operators to track UK population movements – information which was used extensively during the national response to the coronavirus pandemic.
According to newly published commercial information, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) recently signed contracts with O2 and BT – the owner of the EE network. The deals, which are worth a cumulative total of half a million pounds, both came into effect in late March. The O2 agreement is valued at £205,000 and runs for an initial one-year term, while the £290,000 BT deal will be in place until at least April 2025.
BT will use information gleaned from the location services of customers throughout the UK to provide UKHSA with two types of data sets, broadly covering journeys made by road and rail, and footfall in urban and suburban areas. This information will be aggregated and entirely anonymised.
The engagement covers the provision of data from February and March of this year, as well as three full years of information, covering the period from March 2019 to March 2022.
The BT contract cites a number of the health agency’s potential uses for the data, including ongoing modelling of the spread of diseases, and helping to guide the response to future public-health emergencies – including infectious illnesses, as well as extreme weather or biological incidents.
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UKHSA also wishes to get an insight into “behavioural changes post-pandemic, helping us understand the potential impact of wider health threats… [and] establish a post-pandemic baseline of behaviour”.
Such comparisons are likely to play an important role in enabling analysis of the impact and cost-effectiveness of vaccination programmes – including seasonal initiatives such as the annual delivery of flu jabs, as well as emergency schemes like the Covid immunisation drive.
“Analysis [of] national vaccine programmes… requires a good understanding of the mixing between age groups to capture potential indirect effects,” the contract said. “Currently, these models use pre-pandemic mixing data and will need to be recalibrated to post-pandemic mixing to ensure they are able to account for the changes to the epidemiology of pathogens going forward. Mobility data will aid UKHSA in understanding how mixing has changed during the pandemic, and at what point this settles into a more regular pattern in the future.”
The commercial document sets out commitments that the data provided to authorities will be “no more extensive than is legitimately required… to fulfil the permitted purpose” and that – “as and when appropriate” – citizens will be kept informed of how and why data is being used by UKHSA, “to avoid public misconceptions”.
The provision of data to the government body will also be subject to time limits, as well as a requirement for “robust security measures” and the elimination of any risk that individuals could be identified.
The contract asserts that UKHSA will not keep data sets for any longer than is required for the task at hand, and will delete all information immediately thereafter.
During the peak months of the Covid pandemic, the Department of Health and Social signed a range of contracts – primarily with O2 – through which government and the NHS could access population-movement data. The aim of the arrangements, which were cumulatively worth about £4m, was to enable officials to better understand patterns of social contact, and track whether restrictions were having the intended effect.
Six months ago, government’s new centralised emergency-response hub – called the National Situation Centre – also invested in O2’s mobility data, signing an £800,000 deal with the telecoms firm.
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