During the last few months, we have observed how the world can use digital technology against COVID-19. Technology can truly help in fighting the pandemic in many different ways. And by expanding their digital services, organizations across various industries can alleviate the impact of the pandemic on the economy and even power their growth later on.
According to the World Bank, digitized economies have lower epidemic risks and use digital channels for addressing them in many ways. The recently released report was based on cross-sectional data on internet usage and epidemic risk for 180 economies. It revealed that countries with wider internet access and safer servers are more resilient to epidemics like COVID-19. Such countries tend to have better infrastructures (in areas like transportation or energy), as well as stronger governance and human development (such as social protection, nutrition, and health) that allow coping with the pandemic. Digital technologies also help to flatten the curve in many ways.
In this article, we zoom in on the role of digital technology in the fight against COVID-19.
Read on to:
- explore the three ways digital technologies help in managing the pandemic,
- learn how they support healthcare,
- and see some examples of exciting startups created to address problems that arose from the spread of COVID-19.
Digital technology against COVID-19
1. Access to information
Authorities and governments use digital platforms to provide trustworthy, official, and timely information and advice about COVID-19. Out of 193 United Nations member states, 167 provided information on their national portals, social media platforms, and mobile apps.
Such information includes practical guidance on protection, an overview of governmental responses, outbreak statistics, and travel restrictions. Thanks to access to specialized information from governments, citizens can make more informed decisions about their daily routines.
Digital access to information helps to build public trust.
For example, in the United Kingdom, the government built an automated chatbot service on WhatsApp. The public can use it to get answers to the most common question about COVID-19 directly from the government.
2. Connection and collaboration
Thanks to online platforms, millions of workers and students could connect to their offices and schools from home during lockdowns introduced to contain the spread of COVID-19. In countries such as Italy, China, South Korea, and the United States, educators used online learning tools and held live-streaming classes using digital platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom, or Google Hangouts.
Around the world, businesses would bring their teams together face-to-face using videoconferencing tools and screen sharing on electronic devices. Continuing projects and study would be impossible if not for these digital platforms.
3. Helping healthcare
Digital data and artificial intelligence help to diagnose and monitor the dynamics of coronavirus infections. For example, a South Korean AI company released free COVID-19 analysis software used for early diagnosis and assessment of virus symptoms. The software can detect, segment, and produce 3D models of lung damage caused by COVID-19 on the basis of CT images.
To combat the coronavirus outbreak, South Korea also used contact tracing with the help of mobile technologies such as cellphone masts, GPS, and high-powered big data analytics. This helped the South Korean government to understand and manage the spread of COVID-19 within their communities. This is just one of the many examples of such technology usage.
Digital technology supporting healthcare during the pandemic
The healthcare industry is taking advantage of various digital technologies to support the public health response to COVID-19 all over the world. The most common use cases include:
- case identification,
- population surveillance,
- contact tracing,
- interventions on the basis of mobility data,
- official communication with the public.
Thanks to these technologies, governments and healthcare providers can launch rapid responses and take advantage of machine learning and natural language processing (NLP) that use large online data sets from mobile phones, connected devices, as well as computing resources that come at a relatively low cost.
The future of public health is likely to become more and more digital.
Here’s a selection of digital technologies with examples showing how they have been supporting healthcare.
Digital epidemiological surveillance
One of the most important things to do in outbreak management is understanding infection transmission in time, place, and people. This is how governments can identify risk factors for the disease and guide effective interventions. Today, thanks to digital technologies, authorities can use a wide range of sources to interpret and enhance the data gathered by public health authorities.
For example, the UK launched an automated syndromic surveillance system that scans the National Health Service records to identify clusters of the respiratory syndrome that could indicate COVID-19.
Authorities use data visualization tools and dashboards to collate real-time public health data and keep the public informed. These dashboards offer time-series charts and geographic maps that range from region-level statistics to case-level coordinate data.
Quick case identification
Identifying new cases for isolation and spotting contacts to reduce the virus spread is critical during a pandemic. It helps to understand the key risks and modes of transmission as well. This is where digital technologies can help a lot. Today, technology assists in clinical and laboratory notification using symptom-based case identification systems. This is thanks to the widespread access to community testing and self-testing and acceleration of reporting to public health authorities.
For example, the UK and Singapore implemented an online symptom reporting system that is used for surveillance but also offers advice about isolation and referrals for further healthcare services. It’s essential that such services are connected to public health surveillance data and specific actions such as isolation of cases.
Breaking community transmission
After a case is identified and isolated, public health authorities need to quickly trace key contacts to prevent further transmission. In areas characterized by high transmission, the implementation and monitoring of such interventions are required at a scale that is becoming increasingly difficult to manage – but only when using traditional means.
This is where digital contact tracing solutions come into play. They automate contact tracing at the scale and speed that just isn’t replicable without digital tools. This reduces the authorities’ reliance on human recall, which is particularly problematic in densely populated areas with highly mobile populations.
Digital contact tracing apps are now widespread around the world. These new approaches and technologies haven’t been previously tried at this scale and often prove controversial in terms of data privacy.
Use of mobility data
Smartphones collect aggregated location data via the cellular network, GPS, and Wi-Fi. That’s how they can monitor real-time population flows to identify potential transmission hotspots and offer us insights into the effectiveness of public health interventions such as travel restrictions on the actual behaviors of citizens.
However, access to mobility data is a major challenge for many governments. Such approaches raise ethical and privacy concerns.
- For example, in China, the daily aggregated origin-destination data provided by Baidu are used to evaluate the effect of travel restrictions and quarantine measures on the COVID-19 transmissions in the country.
- Google has also released weekly mobility reports with subnational granularity, including a breakdown of data by journey type (destinations such as workplaces or parks). This data set has been made publicly downloadable.
- Apple has also released the data set featuring daily figures for mobility and assumed the method of transportation.
- However, since no standardization of these data sets has been established between these providers, not all countries and regions are included in the data sets.
It’s clear that digital technologies solve many problems that arise during the pandemic. They also come with unique challenges. However, if not for digital innovation, the COVID-19 pandemic would have a much bigger impact on business operations and our everyday lives.
Examples of technological innovation to fight COVID-19
- Cargo X
This Brazilian logistics company set up a $5.6 million fund to support the transportation of essential goods such as hygiene products, food, and medicine in Brazil during the pandemic. The idea is to pay the wages of carriers and drivers to keep the market going at the time when the country is hit hard by the virus. The system helps to spread the cost in a way that supports workers when the cash flow in transportation companies is tight.
- Takeoff Technologies
Grocery stores around the world witnessed a spike in online sales during the pandemic. To cope with this increased demand, many of them increased digital ordering and delivery services. However, when store aisles are congested, and there are not enough people on board, fulfilling all the online orders can be challenging.
The US-based retail company Takeoff Technologies created micro-fulfillment centers – small warehouses at the back of grocery stores that use robots to prepare customer orders. This not only allows local businesses without existing automated warehouses to compete on the market but also ensures that social distancing measures are observed.
- Starling Bank
During the COVID-19 pandemic, people around the world were asked to self-isolate. When staying at home, many of them depend on others for essential goods. One way to pay them was created by the British fintech startup – a debit card that allows a trusted person to purchase things on the owner’s behalf. The connected card is linked to the owner’s account, removing any need for physical exchange of cash or checks. This provides an extra level of protection to particularly vulnerable people.
This South Korean healthcare company developed an artificial intelligence solution capable of diagnosing lung diseases by analyzing x-ray images. The company has made its software available online for free. To train the algorithms, hospitals in South Korea and Brazil upload up to 20 cases a day for AI diagnosis.
- Jumia and Twiga Foods
These two African tech startups partner teamed up to make sure that homes under lockdown can get fresh produce. Jumia operates a large online delivery business across the African continent. Twiga Foods connect the network of 17,000 farmers in Kenya with marketplaces using their own pack houses. By partnering up, these companies combined their expertise in fresh produce and delivery to provide households with fresh food among the restrictions.
Data is set to play a significant role in fighting COVID-19 – whether it’s through track and trace teams, understanding how coronavirus works or designing testing programs. The French company Dawex created a COVID-19 data exchange initiative. This initiative opens up the platform free of charge for companies and organizations that need to exchange non-personal beta for conducting research studies about the coronavirus.
The transportation industry was severely hit by the pandemic. From staffing shortages to closed destinations, the lockdown regulations in many countries around the world caused passenger numbers to drop. For example, in the UK around 40% of bus services were carrying just 10% of usual passenger volumes.
Optibus is a company that hopes its insights could mitigate this problem. It offers mass transportation agencies free planning services to identify the best routes, crew schedules, and cost to allow mass travel in the age of COVID-19.
One of the greatest problems during the pandemic was ensuring that protective equipment gets to the front-line workers. The e-commerce company Mirakl partnered with the French government to create a one-stop platform where manufacturers, subcontractors, and distributors could communicate over orders for hand sanitizer for medical use.
The production was powered up in France, and throughout the world, but without establishing clear lines of communication, it might not get to hospitals exactly when it’s needed. This is just one example of the many exchange platforms that emerged during the pandemic.
It’s clear that the COVID-19 pandemic would take on a very different form if not for the digital technologies available to us right now. Technological innovation affected practically every industry out there, and companies around the world are now rethinking their approaches, investing in new solutions, and preparing themselves for similar problems that might affect them in the future.
If you’re interested in building a game-changing (or even life-changing!) digital solution for healthcare, don’t hesitate to contact us for help in its design and development.
You may also find these articles interesting: