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NHS partners with Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Palantir in fight against coronavirus

Tom McArthur
Page editor
A member of the military at the ExCel centre in London which is being made into a temporary hospital - the NHS Nightingale hospital, comprising of two wards, each of 2,000 people, to help tackle coronavirus. (Photo by Yui Mok/PA Images via Getty Images)

The NHS is teaming up with some of the world’s biggest tech companies to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

In an official blog, it confirmed that the firms are to create computer ‘dashboard’ systems to show the spread of the virus across the UK and the organisation’s ability to deal with it.

Four tech companies are named in the post: US giants, Microsoft (MSFT), Google (GOOG) and Palantir - a controversial organisation that provides services for US agencies as well as international NGOs. The fourth firm is Faculty AI, which is based in London.

According to the BBC, Amazon is also involved in the campaign against Covid-19, and will eventually distribute home testing kits to the public.

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NHSX - a unit within the healthcare system responsible for digital innovation - is heading the effort to harness a range of data sources, so that they could be used in combination.

The ambitious goal is a dashboard that pulls in real time information about the pandemic which will help medics and the government to:

  • See how the virus is spreading and identify risks to particularly vulnerable groups of people

  • Increase resources in emerging hotspots almost immediately

  • Get critical equipment to hospitals and other facilities in greatest need

  • Send patients to hospitals best able to care for them based on current demand, resources and staffing levels

The NHS says that the information would mostly be drawn from existing data sources, and would be anonymised so that individual patients could not be identified. This process will involve scrubbing the data of identifiers like names and addresses and replacing them with a “pseudonym,” it said.

Who’s doing what?

The NHS said:

  • Microsoft had built a data store on its Azure cloud computing platform to hold the information in a single, secure location

  • Palantir is providing use of its Foundry software tool, which analyses records to deliver a "single source of truth"

  • Faculty AI is making dashboards, models and simulations that decision-makers would view

  • Google's G Suite of productivity apps could be used to collect real-time operational data like occupancy levels and Accident & Emergency capacity

Privacy campaigners have raised concerns, namely with Palantir, which is controversial for its role in helping US immigration agents track and deport undocumented immigrants, as well as its work with the CIA overseas.

The NHS says that all the data involved would be made "open source wherever we can".

Regarding Palantir, they say: “Palantir is 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”.

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They continue: “After the emergency is over, we hope to be able to use what we have learned from our technology partners to get better within the Government at data collection, aggregation and analysis in a way that protects the privacy of our citizens.”