Priyanka Pillai: My experience as a participant in the RDA-COVID19 Working Group

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13 Jul 2020

Priyanka Pillai: My experience as a participant in the RDA-COVID19 Working Group

Researcher at the University of Melbourne, Australia


Ms Priyanka Pillai is a Researcher at the University of Melbourne, Australia. 

What roles did you play in the RDA COVID-19 Working Group?

I was one of the co-chairs for the Working Group and also a part of the editorial committee.


Why did you feel the need to join the group?

I submitted an abstract titled “Value of making data F.A.I.R. to respond to infectious disease emergencies,” hoping that, if accepted, the session would lead to setting up a special interest group or a working group. My abstract was accepted for a session at the March RDA 15th Plenary Meeting in Melbourne. I had no idea how topical my abstract would become when I submitted it. In addition to the session I was also invited to give one of the meeting’s keynote speeches, “The Role of Data in a Rapid and Coordinated Response to Infectious Disease Outbreaks”. After the meeting, I was invited to be one of the co-chairs of the RDA COVID-19 Working Group. 


Who do you think would benefit most by applying these guidelines and recommendations (policymakers, researchers, etc.)?

The challenges associated with data collection, usage and sharing during a pandemic is a new landscape for all of us. The guidelines and resources in the report will benefit researchers who are working to enhance the evidence base for global response. The recommendations will help policymakers direct the right resources – skills, infrastructure, principles and practices – towards making data available to researchers and public health practitioners.


Can you identify a potential scenario in which these guidelines and recommendations would be applied and help alleviate the impact of another potential emergency?

The recommendations have been written by experts from a wide range of domains who are collectively working towards the pandemic response. Some of the biggest challenges are data harmonisation and a lack of coordinated systems and legal/ethical barriers to sharing data. These recommendations could help formulate a better framework in the preparedness phase, to allow rapid and harmonised collection, aggregation and sharing of data. Having a better understanding of ethical/legal frameworks for the pandemic’s data governance phase is also critical.


What were the pros and cons of having this working group produce this report in such a small window of time?

It was challenging to develop something robust during a rapidly evolving pandemic scenario where the evidence base was changing rapidly. The priority was to collate the most appropriate content and make it available for the community as soon as possible.

One of the pluses of the tight timeline was that it revealed the plausibility of producing tangible outputs that could be tabled for decisionmakers. The rapid response from the RDA COVID-19 Working Group could reframe expectations of how quickly outputs can be produced in a tight timeline.


How would you describe the value of the international research collaboration facilitated by the RDA on an initiative such as this?

The geographical as well domain diversity of the group’s expertise is well reflected in the document. A global pandemic impacts everyone; the response can’t be localised. An international initiative such as RDA demonstrates the power of a global community, knowledge and connectivity. 


What was your biggest takeaway from this experience?  

Being a part of an international COVID-19 working group, drawing from the expertise of a huge range of data experts, was once in a lifetime experience for me. In a strange way it is comforting to know that public health and infectious diseases experts are grappling with similar data management challenges all over the world.

I am looking forward to taking the experience to the next level and being a part of a broader group via the RDA that works towards better data management practices in infectious diseases.


Interview by Lynn Elsey, Australian Research Data Commons