Coronavirus: NHS corrals Microsoft, Palantir and Google to hone data analysis

The NHS has confirmed it is working with Microsoft, Palantir and Google to improve data analysis to make its anti-coronavirus effort more efficient and effective

The NHS has confirmed it is working with Microsoft, Palantir and Google to improve its data analytics efforts and make its battle against the Covid-19 coronavirus more efficient and effective.

In a blogpost, Matthew Gould, chief executive of NHSX, Indra Joshi, director of artificial intelligence (AI) and Ming Tang, director of data and analytics for NHS England Improvement, wrote: “To understand and anticipate demand on health and care services, we need a robust operating picture of the virus, how it’s spreading, where it might spread next, and how that will affect the NHS and social care services. On the supply side, we need to know where the system is likely to face strain first, be that on ventilators, beds or staff sickness.”

The blog’s authors said that the government has commissioned NHS England Improvement and NHSX to develop a data platform to “provide those national organisations responsible for coordinating the response [to the Covid-19 pandemic] with secure, reliable and timely data – in a way that protects the privacy of our citizens”.

Data will be gathered from sources that include 111 calls and Covid-19 test results.

Joshi and Ming Tang will lead the team, which will also receive support from Microsoft, Palantir Technologies UK, Google and London-based AI firm Faculty.

The NHSX and NHS England’s technical teams have built a backend data store on Microsoft’s cloud platform, Azure, to “bring multiple data sources into a single, secure location”. A G-Cloud data processing contract is in place for that, the blogpost authors said.

Palantir Technologies UK is providing the software, Palantir Foundry, that constitutes the front-end data platform. Palantir Foundry is said to enable disparate data to be cleansed and integrated.

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A G-Cloud data processing contract is also in place for this. The authors state that Palantir will function as a data processor, not a data controller, and cannot pass on or use the data for any wider purpose without the permission of NHS England.

The NHS is also looking at Google’s G-Suite tools  to allow the NHS to collect critical real-time information on hospital responses to Covid-19. Data collected, it is said, would be aggregated operational data only, such as hospital occupancy levels and A&E capacity. It will not, it is said, include any form of identifiable patient data.

Faculty has an existing role with NHSX and will create dashboards, models and simulations to aid decision making.

The BBC’s Leo Kelion has confirmed that Amazon is also involved in the activity, and details of its role will be confirmed at a later date. Once the pandemic is “contained”, the NHS team will close the Covid-19 datastore, it is said.

Palantir’s poor reputation

The role of Palantir in the project has attracted criticism from civil liberties organisations Open Rights Group and Privacy International. Jim Killock, executive director at Open Rights Group, said on the organisation’s website: “Everybody’s goal must be to build trust in the national response to Covid-19. Palantir have a poor reputation, as engaging in activities which threaten personal privacy and may lead to other human rights abuses.

“The NHS therefore needs to be extremely cautious and transparent in its dealings with Palantir,” he said. “They must explain how people’s data may be handled and protected and how they will ensure that Palantir does not acquire or abuse information. The last thing that we need as a nation at this time is for ill-thought out arrangements to generate a privacy backlash.”

Palantir in the US has been involved with the controversial Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) programme, to the extent that its own employees protested against its involvement in 2019.

Privacy International added to Killock’s comment on the Open Rights website: “It’s absolutely right that we do everything we can to support the NHS amid this public health emergency, but what does this mean for the long term? In the past, Palantir clients are reported to have faced extreme difficulties accessing the analysis produced by Palantir when trying to end a contract. Supplier lock-in is a real risk here which must be appropriately mitigated.”

Palo Alto based Palantir was co-founded by leading Silicon Valley venture capitalist Peter Thiel in 2003. And while its co-founder and CEO Alex Karp has a doctorate from Goethe University Frankfurt, written in dialogue with the Marxist tradition there of Theodor Adorno and Jürgen Habermas, and is a self-described socialist, the company’s client base among the CIA and FBI has made it controversial among civil libertarians.

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