Public-health agency explores use of satellites to collect Covid data

Written by Sam Trendall on 10 May 2022 in News
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UKHSA undertakes workshops and consultancy exercises

Credit: European Space Agency/CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

The government’s public-health agency is exploring the potential role of satellite technology in gathering data on the coronavirus pandemic.

Newly released commercial information reveals that the UK Health Security Agency recently signed a deal for a “satellite challenge exploration”. The contract, worth £11,846 and awarded to the Satellite Applications Catapult, ran for the duration of March and April.

During this period, the catapult was asked “to carry out a series of events to support UKHSA to develop a wider strategy where satellite technology can be used as an additional data resource for Covid-19 detection and prevention”, the procurement notice said.

The contract reveals that the engagement began with an initial workshop at which the public health organisation – which incorporates the NHS Test and Trace programme – would “introduce its objectives”, while representatives of the catapult were expected to “showcase basic concepts of satellite Earth observation and related applications”. The UK Space Agency, which is based at the same Oxfordshire campus as the catapult, was also expected to “actively participate” in this event.

Following this initial get-together, UKHSA wished to conduct several weeks of “correspondence and consultancy”, during which the agency wished to “jointly work towards ideas supporting the ‘single mission’ UKHSA strategy, including potential stakeholder mapping”.


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The engagement with the satellite research unit concluded with a final workshop event at which the parties would convene to “trace the summary of the findings towards the drafting of a short presentation with the findings [and] next steps”.

Satellite imagery is the latest of a wide range of means through which public bodies have sought to gather data that sheds light on the spread of coronavirus or the trends in population movement. 

The Joint Biosecurity Centre – which has also been incorporated into UKHSA – has previously studied the impact of lockdowns by collecting mobile phone location data provided by a subsidiary of telecoms giant Ericsson. The Data Science Campus of the Office for National Statistics, meanwhile, collated information from CCTV cameras to build a picture of the busyness of urban areas.

These experimental methods have complemented dedicated surveys conducted by the ONS, in which as many as 180,000 people a week have participated by answering questions about their behaviour and providing PCR swab tests, or submitting to a blood extraction.

The Satellite Applications Catapult is one of nine such facilities, all of which are sponsored by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy – but operate as private, not-for-profit entities. The catapults were created by government in 2011 as a means to bring together industry and academia The units are supported by “core” public funding, but are expected to seek out additional backing from the private sector.

The other catapults in the network are dedicated to: cell and gene therapy; connected places; compound semiconductor applications; digital; energy systems; high-value manufacturing; medicines discovery; and offshore renewable energy.

UKHSA came into being last year, replacing Public Health England, and bringing the agency under the same roof as Test and Trace and the Joint Biosecurity Centre, which was created to provide expert guidance on government’s response to the coronavirus crisis.

 

About the author

Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology. He can be reached on sam.trendall@dodsgroup.com.

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