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Five ways coronavirus could shape our digital future

Written by Jonathan Tanner


The full disruptive potential of the coronavirus (Covid-19) will take months if not years to reveal itself. In the meantime, plenty of brainpower has already been expended exploring the potential cost to lives and livelihoods across Africa, Asia, Europe and America. If, like me, you’re anxious about all this then perhaps it’s worth thinking about how coronavirus could, eventually, change the world for the better.

One obvious place to start is by looking into the nervous eyes of our political leaders. During a crisis like the coronavirus outbreak, the strengths and weaknesses of any administration are laid bare. China has been able to marshal an awesome amount of resources with speed and discipline but was late to react to the virus because of its tendency to clamp down on free speech. Health authorities across the US have been unable to test for the virus, virologists and epidemiologists have been reined in by the White House and yet it is American biotech companies many predict will engineer the first approved treatments.

Faced with the kind of crisis that could stir the national psyche into a once in a generation state of fear and scrutiny, it is no surprise that Boris Johnson and Donald Trump (perhaps less so Xi Jinping and Ayatollah Khamenei) are looking to state institutions for help in a way which could potentially give them pause for thought in the future.

Of course, this could just be wishful thinking. In which case, let’s try something a little more concrete. The actions of businesses and organisations around the world to try and limit the spread of the virus have already revealed five ways we could create new norms around the use of digital technology that speed our transition to digital societies.

1. ‘Virtualisation’ of major events

Firstly, the ‘virtualisation’ of major events like the World Bank Spring Meetings and the continuity challenges many organisations will face in the coming months is going to accelerate the adoption of remote working technologies. It may also force a moment of consideration on the balance sheet when it comes to costs saved on staff travel. For those of us working internationally, the investment needed to ensure staff in countries with less reliable connections are able to regularly participate in virtual meetings may be far less than the cost of regular flights, especially with Google making hangouts more widely available.

2. Tackling disinformation

Also encouraging is the cooperation being shown by social media companies when it comes to tackling disinformation around the outbreak. Search for ‘coronavirus’ on Facebook, Google or Twitter and you will be directed strongly to official sources of information. Facebook is also actively monitoring for and removing fake news stories. If it’s possible to work with the authorities like this during a crisis then maybe, just maybe, more cooperation is possible when it comes to other initiatives to create better digital societies.

3. Data transparency

As well as the actions of big tech there are already examples of how government transparency with data can have a beneficial impact for society. In Singapore open government data has enabled detailed and informative mapping of the outbreak which may have helped contain transmission and contrasts starkly with the situation in Iran.

4. Driving innovation

We could also see innovation amongst the growing ‘Govtech’ ecosystem which looks to provide technological solutions to public policy problems and efficiency gains for public services. In Korea smartphone users are already informed by apps like ‘Corona 100m’ when they are in an area where Covid-19 cases have been identified. At the moment the NHS is not sharing case-by-case location information on a daily basis but it is possible that could change with public pressure if the data can be used in ways that help to keep the public and individual patients safe.

5. Artificial intelIigence in science and healthcare

Finally there is limited information about the ways in which artificial intelligence can be used to provide accurate diagnosis and prognosis for Covid-19 patients. The unprecedented speed and scale of the scientific response in recent weeks has been enabled by advances in genome sequencing technology and molecular biology that will underpin our future healthcare in the 21st century.

As always when it comes to digital technology there are two sides to every coin. We may not yet be ready for AI to make life or death decisions about who gets a hospital bed. Some of the innovations here are only possible because of levels of state surveillance or that citizens living in democracies may not tolerate. One such example being the censorship of Wechat for criticism of the Chinese government’s handling of the outbreak. I am not suggesting those of us living in democracies should trade away our freedoms but the dilemma posed by technologies which offer greater efficiency at the cost of reduced privacy is not going to disappear.

In the years ahead, we will need to strike new social contracts between governments, citizens and technology companies that earn the informed consent of citizens and maximise the public good that comes with modern digital capabilities. If a coronavirus pandemic kickstarts those conversations then we may have something to look back and be thankful for.