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Palantir’s NHS data project “may outlive coronavirus crisis”

An ambitious initiative to forecast demand on NHS services at both a local and national level is likely to outlive the coronavirus pandemic, according to two sources close to the project.

The initiative, announced by NHSX last month, draws in up to a thousand data points a day, including anonymised and aggregated patient data, and has been established to help hospitals around the country prepare for heightened demand during the pandemic.

The datastore – data for which is gathered by the NHS – is currently focused on situational awareness, but will transition to forecasting in the comings days and weeks, allowing hospital trusts to allocate resources, such as PPE, ventilators and intensive care beds, based on predictions of patient numbers.

The project is being managed by NHSX, Peter Thiel’s controversial data analysis firm Palantir, and the London AI company Faculty. As NS Tech reported earlier this week, Palantir, which is focused on the data engineering side of the project, has offered up 45 engineers at an estimated cost of £88,000 a week, in return for just a £1 fee.

A source close to the project said Palantir would be well placed to continue providing the service after the coronavirus outbreak comes to an end, especially if it was willing to provide its software for less than the market rate. It might be willing to do so if in order to secure further work with other healthcare organisations around the world.

Faculty is responsible for turning the data Palantir collates into actionable insights for hospitals, as well as government officials and ministers. Its services may not need to be retained to keep the project running afterwards. NS Tech understands that the data is playing a central role in the decision-making around when the government will allow the NHS to start performing elective care again.

NHSX has not immediately responded to a request for comment, but its CEO Matthew Gould revealed last month that while the data gathered during the coronavirus outbreak will either be destroyed at the end of the pandemic or returned to the NHS, the government would seek to learn from its technology partners to improve how it collects, aggregates and analyses data.

In comments that provoked speculation the project would outlive the crisis, Gould said last month: “Sophisticated data analysis will allow us to make changes to the NHS, ensuring that our hardworking health and care professionals and the people that depend on them are served by a much more efficient and responsive organisation.”

One source close to the project described the system as the “best planning tool hospitals have ever had”, adding: “The team has been developing the localisation of the national models so that we can tell for example in Barnet or in Gloucestershire what the likely demand for PPE or ventilators or ICU beds is likely to be under different scenarios. That’s pretty game changing for NHS planning.”

Faculty has until recent weeks remained largely unknown outside of the data science community, but claims to have “Europe’s most experienced team of AI and machine learning specialists”, having poached some of the UK’s best data science PhD students through its fellowship programme.

However, the spotlight has turned to the company in the last fortnight after its chief executive’s brother, Ben Warner, was named as one of the two political advisers who attended the SAGE meetings in March. The other was the prime minister’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings. Warner and Cummings worked together on Vote Leave and the former has been appointed as a data science adviser to Downing Street in recent months.

Over the last year, the company has become the go-to source on AI guidance and data science work within government. As NS Tech reported in December, Faculty was commissioned to carry out a review of the application of artificial intelligence across Whitehall last year. But the government blocked the full publication of its report following a request under transparency rules by NS Tech.

Faculty has also secured a year-long contract to provide data science consultancy services focusing on the government’s public-facing website, GOV.UK. The contract came just weeks after it emerged that Downing Street was gathering user data generated through the site.

Palantir, meanwhile, was co-founded by the early Facebook investor and Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel (pictured) in 2003. It has been considering how its software could support the NHS for at least two years, as NS Tech reported earlier this week. But the data project represents its first contract with the health service.