LIRNEasia’s Data Algorithms and Policy workstream includes research on epidemiology as well as research on the potential uses of satellite imagery for development purposes. Like everyone (it seems) we too are avidly following the massive outpouring of research on COVID-19. Thus, we were intrigued by the recent prepublication from Harvard on when COVID-19 may have arisen in Wuhan.
We have been somewhat skeptical about the conclusions that could be drawn from search terms in countries with low Internet use and different cultural attitudes to treatment of disease. But we are intrigued by the reported co-incidence of search terms related to gastro-intestinal and respiratory problems. We have no idea about Chinese attitudes toward seeking information re illnesses from the web, but the we do know that Internet use in China is very high, unlike most countries we work in.
But drawing conclusions from satellite images of cars in car parks is another matter altogether. By end 2018, China had 172 vehicles per 1000 people (compared to 800+/1000 in the US and 600+/1000 in Japan, according to a 2019 article. Japan also brings up a critical difference in culture affecting use of cars. As many in developing Asia know, Japanese own cars but use them sparingly unlike Americans.
While remote sensing data has many attractive features, we believe contextual knowledge must be applied to make good use of them.