The NHS is preparing to unveil a “data platform” which tracks the movement of critical staff and materials, giving ministers the first ever comprehensive view of the entire health system, Sky News can reveal.
NHS leaders believe the platform will be transformative in the fight against coronavirus, as it will allow decision-makers to see accurate information in real time and coordinate a truly national response to the pandemic.
However, critics have raised concerns, largely because of the identity of the company brought in to build the system – controversial Silicon Valley giant Palantir.
The deal, which is expected to be announced in the next 24 hours, tasks Palantir with gathering data from across the health sector into a comprehensive “data store”.
The data – which does not include sensitive individual health information – is then presented in a dashboard, akin to the ones used for monitoring internet traffic.
Items tracked in this way include A&E capacity, calls to NHS 111, and the number and location of beds, ventilators and active NHS staff, according to three sources familiar with the project.
NHS leaders believe the system can play a critical role in the NHS’s response to the pandemic, by giving government and health service decision-makers accurate information on the situation on the ground, something which has been difficult until now because of the fragmented state of NHS data.
The dashboard will help ministers see in real-time how the NHS is coping with the pandemic, according to a source with knowledge of the project, which will inform government decision-making on lifting the country’s lockdown.
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It will also help civil servants with decisions such as where to send ventilators in order to make sure they meet demand, the source said.
The government has ordered 30,000 ventilators from firms including vacuum cleaner manufacturer Dyson, but there is a risk they may be sent to the wrong hospital, as the virus moves swiftly around the country.
Front line staff may also benefit. According to the source, the dashboard tracks the availability of beds: with this data to hand, an NHS 111 operator could send a sick patient to a hospital with beds, even if it’s further from their home.
The analytics system will also track the availability of NHS staff, helping officials make decisions about staffing as the virus reaches its peak.
It also draws in data from the social care system, giving the government a comprehensive view of the health system, something NHSX leaders believe is crucial to developing a coordinated national response.
The project is being led by NHSX, the NHS innovation unit set up in July 2019, and fulfils a long-standing vision pushed by Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who has called for NHS data to be “more like the back end of the internet – open, interoperable, easily upgradeable”.
At present, although the NHS has a wealth of data, most of it exists in silos, making it hard to coordinate even simple activities, let alone national responses.
However, the speed of the developments has raised concerns among data protection advocates, who are wary of Palantir’s reputation.
The secretive big data firm is known for taking on defence contracts, including work for the Pentagon and the CIA in the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Lately, it has raised controversy over its work for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the US agency responsible for enforcing President Donald Trump’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants in the country.
Palantir did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Despite the speed at which it has been forced to work, NHSX says it has taken full account of both data protection legislation and privacy concerns.
The system removes identifiers such as names and addresses in order to keep the data as anonymous as possible. NHSX has also committed to closing the data agreements and removing or destroying the data once the pandemic abates.
Although sensitive personal health data is used to inform the dashboard, it is stored by Public Health England, and only provided to Palantir in an aggregated form, a source familiar with the arrangement told Sky News.
Jeni Tennison, CEO of the Open Data Institute, said she was not concerned about the use of personal health data, but she feared that the system could set a precedent for future data arrangements.
“We are in an unprecedented situation, so I think the public will accept that access to data that is about us will be really helpful to NHS decision-makers and beyond,” Dr Tennison told Sky News.
“But it’s important that we understand that this is time limited, and really important that the NHS is open with us about the reasons why data that is about us is being shared in the way that it is”.
The prime minister’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, has previously praised visualisation systems, criticising their absence in government.
Writing in a blog shortly before he went into government, Mr Cummings wrote that it should be “as easy to insert facts, data, and models in political discussion as it is to insert emoji”.