Bad Data Always Leads to Bad Ethics

The COVID-19 pandemic has surfaced some very important ethical questions. Particular to this space is using geolocation to track individuals and respond to the crisis. Yet there is a connected, although broader, concept that concerns me more than the compromised privacy that comes with tracking. I’m concerned that we are making important decisions based on terribly insufficient data and in the world of public policy ethics, we always contend that bad data leads to bad ethics.

There are several pieces of data that are important for shaping public policy at this moment: the number of people exposed, the number infected, the number hospitalized, the number in intensive care, and the number of deaths.  Soon enough, we’ll also want to know the number who have recovered with possible immunity, but that’s for another post.

The numbers above can help us determine several important aspects of public policy. For example:

  • The degree to which social distancing measures can be relaxed or must be strengthened in a geographical region
  • How to shift limited resources such as ventilators, personal protective equipment, scarce medications, and even medical personnel to areas of highest need
  • Whether there are avoidable disparities in care along racial / ethnic or other lines
  • How much of a threat the virus is to health care workers on the front lines
  • How much financial support is required for families and organizations as a result of the virus

Even with good data, we may still make poor ethical decisions about limiting liberty, allocating resources, and responding to holes in our social safety net. Yet without good data, we are almost certain to make poor ethical decisions. Computer scientists coined the term, “garbage in, garbage out.” It is also a great way to think of public policy in the midst of this pandemic. And if you speak with any health professional or public health official, they will tell you that our data at the moment, especially the number actually infected, is garbage.

For those interested in using personal geolocation as a COVID intervention, I would ask what exactly we’d be tracking and I would want to know whether it has a chance at meaningfully improving our data environment. There are many other ethical concerns to address, but an intervention’s likelihood of achieving its objective is the most fundamental. If location data is simply layered on top of our current testing and diagnostic data, it will be relatively worthless. I know everyone imagines hitting the game-winning shot, but that never happens without first learning the fundamentals of the game.

Michael Rozier is a Jesuit priest and faculty member in health management and policy at Saint Louis University. His own life is fairly boring, but he likes living vicariously through others’ geolocations. Twitter: @RozierSJ