While COVID-19 has demanded a laserlike focus on health and safety, the intangible asset we call data has never been more important. Data has been accruing value for decades, as new technology and analytic capabilities transform society and business. Now, the pandemic has underscored the opportunities and risks of the information era, and Ontario can choose to either take advantage or fall behind by moving unilaterally on privacy reforms.
Data and data-powered technologies have been protagonists throughout the crisis. From the very beginning, tracking health data was necessary to manage outbreaks. In Ontario, where health care data is not automatically standardized and shared across providers, we plainly saw the need for modernization. A desire to collect health data more efficiently led to the development of digital contact tracing apps and debates about their privacy implications. Ontario launched its own app in June 2020 with some of the strongest privacy protections possible.
Meanwhile, anonymized mobility data allowed decision-makers to map consumer behaviour during lockdowns to help guide pandemic responses. For example, some neighbourhoods inhabited by mainly white-collar workers saw increased lunch-hour traffic, leading to more demand for nearby restaurants. The crisis underscored that local data matters.
COVID-19 also accelerated the pace of technology adoption. Digitization proved to be the only way for many non-essential businesses to stay afloat. One month into the pandemic, 44 per cent of Ontario businesses reported that they had adopted new ways to interact with customers. Despite widespread layoffs, data professionals were in higher demand than ever.
There is reason to believe that the fast-tracking of digitization will continue after COVID-19, since companies tend to automate after economic downturns to ramp up their productivity. Digitization will bolster the competitiveness of companies with strong data governance practices and the jurisdictions that cultivate them.
What does this mean for Ontario? On the one hand, we have many of the ingredients needed to compete in the data economy, including leading post-secondary institutions and experts in data science and artificial intelligence.
On the other hand, Ontario is proposing to take a major step backwards on one key issue: privacy.
In June, the province launched a proposal to create new privacy rules for the private sector, despite ongoing yet sluggish federal efforts to modernize existing legislation at the national level. The Ontario government has stressed its willingness to engaging with businesses on the privacy file. That openness is encouraging. However, privacy frameworks must remain federal to avoid unnecessary fragmentation, confusion, and barriers to digital innovation