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To address health disparities, we need better data

December 1, 2020, 8:40 PM UTC

With what appear to be two (and soon three) safe and highly effective vaccines against COVID-19 hurtling towards the finish line, it has felt like a triumphant few weeks for science.

But of course, on public health’s front lines, the immediate picture is considerably more bleak: the pandemic rages on, and as we reach what may be its most devastating phase yet, the glaring disparities that have defined the pandemic in the U.S.—and disproportionately claimed Black, brown and indigenous populations as its victims—remain. One challenge in responding to, or even understanding, these uneven impacts, is surprisingly basic explained Dr. Este Geraghty, the Chief Medical Officer at Esri, the GIS mapping and analytics company, at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference on Tuesday afternoon: We need better data.

“We need to do a better job of disaggregating aggregate data so we can understand gender issues, race and ethnicity issues, age cohort issues and get a handle with what is going on with different populations,” she said. “In public health and health care, we haven’t had that disaggregation of data at a scale where we can easily do the research and understand what is going on behind aggregate numbers. When you aggregate data, you miss disparities.”

She added the country also need finer-scale data mapping. “When we see mapping across the country, often the best we can do is at the county level. Problems happen at the community level. We need to be able to hone in on what is going on in different communities to make really targeted interventions.”

Dr. Michelle Williams, Dean of the Harvard School of Public Health agreed, stressing how fundamental good data is to public health. “Using data to identify and frame the challenge and identify where the problems are where the vulnerable populations are. Once you get past that, then there has to be very clear effective thoughtful communication about what the risks are of the status quo versus the opportunities for interventions that will make the status quo better.”

Beyond basic COVID stats, Williams highlighted the need to think about food, housing, childcare, and job insecurity to address disparities and public health needs created and exacerbated by the pandemic. “We have to think really think about how interconnected all these functions are for us to reimagine what our communities are going to look like coming out of COVID.”

Both Williams and Geraghty acknowledged the promise of new, less traditional data sources like mobile data and telemedicine uptake information in making sense of public health issues. “Being able to track people’s use of technology will actually help us digitally track phenotypes so we can more quickly and easily identify those people who are isolating, who are moving into depressive episodes and provide treatment faster.”