Big Data Analytics Helps To Quantify The Role Of Individuality In COVID-19 Response

Researchers from the University of Virginia conducted a project to study the correlational between regional individuality levels and responses to the coronavirus pandemic through big data analytics.

Struggle to flatten the COVID-19 curve

As countries around the world struggle to flatten the COVID-19 curve, researchers believe they have cracked the code as to why certain areas are faring better than others using Big Data Analytics.

The research, which uses data from more than 200 years ago, shows a correlation between individualism and social distancing compliance as well as COVID-19-related crowdfunding – information the researchers say is urgent and carries significant policy implications.

During their project, researchers (predominantly from the University of Virginia) Jingjing Li, Ting Xu, Natasha Zhang Foutz and Bo Bian analyzed over a quarter of a petabyte (250000 Gigabytes) of data, including approximately 175 trillion records, a tremendous amount for a single project. In fact, this is a task that would normally take even the most powerful of computers three months just to pre-process the granular, population-scale data that was analyzed. Instead, a 97-computer cluster was utilized to help them complete this project in just five weeks.

The study titled “Individualism During Crises” shows that the key behind comprehending why some areas (counties, cities, states and countries) are more open to following COVID-19 mandates and donating to pandemic-related fundraisers is rooted in understanding individualism, collectivism and history.

There are two different groups within society:

Collectivists: Those who prioritize the overall welfare of the group over that of each individual member (otherwise known as collectivism)

Individualists: Those who prioritize independence and self-reliance over the group (otherwise known as individualism)

A widely accepted way to measure the amount of individualism in a general area by social science, is to look at the amount of time said area spent on the American frontier from 1790 to 1890. This was a time where individualism was essential and survival was dependent on independence and self-reliance. Settlers who exhibited these characteristics were usually the ones who decided to migrate to the frontier and also the ones who survived, passing this characteristic to the next generation.

The research shows this individualism, which has been culturally passed down for hundreds of years, is now affecting local responses to the pandemic in a negative way. While the connection may seem like a far-fetched jump to some, culture is very persistent and slow to change.

For example, the study compared Mille Lacs County and Freeborn County which are both located in Minnesota. Mille Lacs County spent approximately 35 years on the American frontier from 1790 to 1890 and displayed more individualistic behavior, with 21% less people staying home and 70% less donations to COVID-19 crowdfunding campaigns as compared to Freeborn County which spent only about four years on the frontier.

Even after taking into consideration variables such as political ideology, social capital or population density, the study found that higher levels of individualism “reduced compliance with state lockdown orders by 41% and pandemic-related fundraising by 48%.” This suggests individualism accounts for nearly half of a policy’s effectiveness.

In similar theory, researchers found that people residing in areas with low-individualism naturally tailored their behavior toward the collective good. This could be seen in counties with a higher population density and more seniors, where the consequences of not following COVID-19 guidelines were more visible.

America is the most individualistic country in the world, which can be both a blessing and a curse.

“The costs and benefits of individualism vary with economic conditions. In good times, individualism encourages effort and innovation. But in bad times, it can be very costly, because it disincentivizes collective actions that are particularly important when facing challenges,” Xu said.

In fact, individualism complicates the fight against COVID-19, where collective actions sometimes have to outweigh individual preference such as when it comes to social distancing or wearing a mask which are crucial.

While the study mainly focused on America, the researchers found similar trends across 83 other countries, including the UK. This pattern demonstrated that more individualistic countries were less likely to social distance, had a higher number of cases, and were struggling to combat the pandemic.

By utilizing a multi-method approach, encompassing geographic information systems, geo-analytics, text mining and econometrics the researchers were able to “uncover nuanced insights from oceans of data.”

“This novel big data analytics method allowed us to complete data pre-processing within a day, and to finish our empirical analysis within two weeks,” said Li. “It really demonstrates the importance of big data analytics in supporting agile policymaking, because we could not afford to wait for three months in the middle of a pandemic.”

They hope their research is used to help predict the spread of COVID-19, as well as assist policymakers in finding ways to flatten the curve, specifically, “through more targeted interventions in highly individualistic areas and communications that take culture into account and emphasize the social benefits of distancing or mask-wearing.”

“We think it is very important to integrate culture into policymaking, what we call culture-aware policymaking,” said Xu. “That is made much easier with the arrival of big data analytics, which allows us to quantify cultural forces at a very local level, and enables policymakers to tailor their policymaking to local cultural influences.”

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