Governments are hungry to deploy big data in health emergencies. Scientists must help to lay the legal, ethical and logistical groundwork.
A few months into the COVID-19 pandemic, operations researcher Kimon Drakopoulos e-mailed both the Greek prime minister and the head of the country’s COVID-19 scientific task force to ask if they needed any extra advice.
Drakopoulos works in data science at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and is originally from Greece. To his surprise, he received a reply from Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis within hours. The European Union was asking member states, many of which had implemented widespread lockdowns in March, to allow non-essential travel to recommence from July 2020, and the Greek government needed help in deciding when and how to reopen borders.
Greece, like many other countries, lacked the capacity to test all travellers, particularly those not displaying symptoms. One option was to test a sample of visitors, but Greece opted to trial an approach rooted in artificial intelligence (AI).
Between August and November 2020 — with input from Drakopoulos and his colleagues — the authorities launched a system that uses a machine-learning algorithm to determine which travellers entering the country should be tested for COVID-19. The authors found machine learning to be more effective at identifying asymptomatic people than was random testing or testing based on a traveller’s country of origin. According to the researchers’ analysis, during the peak tourist season, the system detected two to four times more infected travellers than did random testing.