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New Report Assessing the Use of Non-Traditional Data During a Pandemic Crisis Released

The GovLab and the Knight Foundation have released a new report examining the use of non-traditional data for pandemic response.

Posted on 31st of October 2022 by Hannah Chafetz

New Report Assessing the Use of Non-Traditional Data During a Pandemic Crisis Released
New Report Assessing the Use of Non-Traditional Data During a Pandemic Crisis Released

As the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrate, pandemics pose major challenges on all levels–with cataclysmic effects on society. 

Decision-makers from around the world have sought to mitigate the consequences of COVID-19 through the use of data, including data from non-traditional sources such as social media, wastewater, and credit card and telecommunications companies. However, there has been little research into how non-traditional data initiatives were designed or what impacts they had on COVID-19 responses. 

Over the last eight months, The GovLab, with the support of The Knight Foundation, has sought to fill this gap by conducting a study about how non-traditional data (NTD) sources have been used during COVID-19. 

On October 31st, The GovLab published the report: “The COVID-19 Review: Assessing the Use of Non-Traditional Data During a Pandemic Crisis.” The report details how decision makers around the world have used non-traditional sources through a series of briefings intended for a generalist audience. 

The briefings describe and assess how non-traditional data initiatives were designed, planned, and implemented, as well as the project results. 


The briefings uncovered several findings about why, where, when, and how NTD was used during COVID-19, including that:

  • Officials increasingly called for the use of NTD to answer questions where and when traditional data such as surveys and case data were not sufficient or could not be leveraged. However, the collection and use of traditional data was often needed to validate insights.
  • NTD sources were primarily used to understand populations’ health, mobility (or physical movements), economic activity, and sentiment of the pandemic. In comparison with previous dynamic crises, COVID-19 was a watershed moment in terms of access to and re-use of non-traditional data in those four areas.
  • The majority of NTD initiatives were fragmented and uncoordinated, reflecting the larger fragmented COVID-19 response. Many projects were focused on responding to COVID-19 after outbreaks occurred. This pattern reflected an overall lack of preparedness for the pandemic and need for the rapid development of initiatives to address its consequences.
  • NTD initiatives frequently took the form of cross-sectoral data partnerships or collaborations developed to respond to specific needs. Many institutions did not have the systems and infrastructure in place for these collaborations to be sustainable.
  • Many of the NTD initiatives involving granular, personal data were implemented without the necessary social license to do so–leading to public concerns about ethics and hindering public trust in non-traditional data. 

Stefaan Verhulst, Co-Founder and Chief R&D of The GovLab explains: “The use of NTD offers growing potential during crisis situations. When managed responsibly, NTD use can help us understand the current state of the crisis, forecast how it will progress, and respond to different aspects of it in real-time.”


Advancing the Responsible Use of NTD During Crises

In the latter part of the report, The GovLab team unpacks these findings and provides actionable recommendations that decision-makers can use during future crises. The four areas of recommendations are summarized below. More details about how each area can be operationalized are included in the full report


  1. Increasing evidence and awareness about the value proposition of NTD: There is a need for a stronger evidence base that can generate awareness of current NTD practices and support the value proposition of NTD during crisis situations. Creating a more data-driven approach to using NTD (that is, having more data about how to use data) can broaden NTD initiatives and ensure they can grow beyond pilot programs and proofs of concept during future crises. 
  2. Advancing trust, ethics, and equity within NTD initiatives: There is a need for public and private organizations to establish trust among parties and with society on how NTD is being used. Prioritizing trust, ethics, and equity at the start of and throughout NTD initiatives can increase the legitimacy of its use and more meaningfully resolve crisis-driven challenges based on a combination of NTD and lived experience. 
  3. Strengthening collaboration and institutionalization of NTD uses: There is a need for multi-stakeholder partnerships to increase the data capacity and speed of implementation of NTD initiatives in a systematic way. Institutionalizing internal professional functions and external partnerships through data stewards can accelerate the use of NTD during crises. 
  4. Preventing fragmentation, and improving readiness and coordination: There is a need for a more coordinated approach–across all crisis management efforts and functions–to address needs both as health systems evolve and as institutions face future public health emergencies. Minimizing fragmentation has the potential to increase readiness for future dynamic crises. 

We invite you to learn more by reading the full report here. Those interested in further examples of non-traditional data uses during COVID-19 can visit the #Data4COVID19 Data Collaborative Repository.

We invite anyone with further questions or comments to reach out to us specifically at [email protected].



About The Governance Lab
The Governance Lab’s mission is to improve people’s lives by changing the way we govern. Our goal at The GovLab is to strengthen the ability of institutions — including but not limited to governments — and people to work more openly, collaboratively, effectively, and legitimately to make better decisions and solve public problems. We believe that increased availability and use of data, new ways to leverage the capacity, intelligence, and expertise of people in the problem-solving process, combined with new advances in technology and science, can transform governance. We approach each challenge and opportunity in an interdisciplinary, collaborative way, irrespective of the problem, sector, geography, and level of government. For more information, visit the

About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

We are social investors who support democracy by funding free expression and journalism, arts and culture in community, research in areas of media and democracy, and in the success of American cities and towns where the Knight brothers once had newspapers. Learn more at and follow @knightfdn on social media.

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