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How the White House can gain trust for its coronavirus data

July 17, 2020, 8:10 PM UTC

Doug Merritt is a data evangelist. And he has thoughts on the Trump administration’s surprising decision to re-route coronavirus hospitalization data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). That announcement has raised concerns that the White House may be trying to take control of local hospital data about COVID-19 cases to downplay the surging pandemic.

Merritt is the CEO of Splunk, a data platform company which has clients including the CDC and HHS (the former is technically housed under the latter). His firm specializes in cybersecurity and other behind-the-scenes IT meant to improve complex technical operations on a large scale.

But as an executive who firmly believes in the collection, transparency, and communication of data, Merritt was struck by the sudden decision to essentially divert local hospital information about COVID-19 from the CDC to HHS, over which the White House has more direct control.

He doesn’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. But it would require adherence to a strict set of principles about data integrity to gain the public’s trust that the numbers aren’t being manipulated, he tells Fortune. CDC officials including director Robert Redfield have said they still have access to coronavirus data and that the agency isn’t being subverted.

“After 16 years of being in business at Splunk, we’ve got four data leadership principles,” Merritt says. Those include: diversity of data, since the more different sources you can bring in to a dataset, the more capability you have to interpret the data; transparency of data, which drives trust (without which data is meaningless); openness, so that everyone can have access to data; and, finally, collaboration around data.

“Different viewpoints are so important to actually find the right ‘ah-hah!’ moments around data,” Merritt explains on the final point.

The redirection of hospitals’ coronavirus data is being overseen by Palantir—co-founded by Trump ally Peter Thiel—and a lesser-known firm called TeleTracking for a data collection platform called HHS Protect. TeleTracking was given a $10.2 million contract that faced scrutiny, but HHS has pushed back on claims that this was a no-bid contract, according to the New York Times.

Irrespective of the backroom machinations, Merritt says that, “having a robust, centralized dataset, whether it’s HHS or the CDC, is great on the surface, as long as it follows those four principles of data integrity.”

“My worry would be, are they going to follow those principles? Because if you manipulate source information or restrict access, you’re going to run into problems. It’s going to be so crucial for trust on a national and global basis that they manage this properly.”

This new database is still in its early stages, but Merritt believes that moves such as making all of the raw local hospital data available to the public, so that epidemieologists, scientists, and other experts can come to their own conclusions about what it means, would go a long way towards establishing that trust.