How Big Data can help fight the pandemic

The possibility of searching millions of data and artificial intelligence can serve to reduce the impact of the covid-19 and optimize public policies.

The current covid-19 pandemic has opened the way for questions about what the new technologies — Big Data and Artificial Intelligence (AI) — can do to help reduce the impact or optimize public policies to address this disease.

It must be acknowledged that the first to warn of the coronavirus epidemic was the Canadian start-up BlueDot, which on December 30, 2019, warned its clients (governments, hospitals and companies) that there was a strange pneumonia epidemic in the city of Wuhan, China, one day before China notified the WHO and nine days before the WHO alerted the world.

BlueDot was able to produce this warning using AI-based algorithms that tracked millions of pieces of data: foreign language news, animal and plant disease networks, blogs, official reports, and many others. A group of epidemiologists then verified that the findings made scientific sense, and it was only then that a report was sent. Although, according to Kamran Khan, a physician, founder and CEO of the company, “we didn’t know at the time that it was going to become something of this magnitude.

It was BlueDot itself, who based on global air ticketing data, was able to predict where and when those infected would be heading and thus correctly predicted that the virus would jump from Wuhan to Bangkok, Seoul, Taipei and Tokyo.

For many people, the use of Big Data and AI arouses suspicion because with their techniques they can access consumers’ private information to manipulate them in their decision making. They are used by marketing to “spy” on consumers and know what, when and how to offer them a product in order to get them to buy it; political marketing also uses them to better “sell” candidates, helping them build a specific message for each voter. This covid-19 pandemic opens the opportunity for Big Data and Artificial Intelligence to be used in the public interest rather than the market.

The cases in the world

States in different countries are using them to analyse, plan and control this pandemic. In many cases, this raises debates about what the limits to data privacy are.

South Korea is one of the most successful countries in dealing with this pandemic. Information technology consultant Juan Manuel Hlawatsch explains that there “the state managed to get many citizens to voluntarily download an application created by the South Korean Ministry of Interior and Security that managed everything related to the coronavirus. Thus, those who had symptoms could request an appointment for a test in a “drive thru”, they received the results through the same application, which also served to follow the geolocation of those who tested positive and had to respect the quarantine.

China also used technology to contain the disease, although in a different way. Hlawatsch reveals that there “the state used all possible means to access information from citizens and stop the spread of the disease”. They created an application (Suishenban) where citizens, from their mobile phones, had to complete a daily report with information such as their body temperature or the places they had been. After processing the data, each person was assigned a QR code: Green, for those who could move freely; yellow, for those who had travelled to safe areas (who had their temperature taken when accessing public services or shops) and red, for those who had to remain in quarantine.

Some say that the type of Chinese government surveillance would be difficult to implement in European countries or the United States, but something similar is already happening in those countries.

This week, the Wall Street Journal revealed that the United States government is tracking its citizens’ cell phones to see how they move and to understand how covid-19 spreads. Five hundred cities are being monitored on a portal that can be accessed by federal, state and local officials to help implement responses. The data comes from the mobile advertising industry.

In Lombardy, the region of Italy most affected by the coronavirus, the government used data from telecommunication companies to analyze the movements of the population through their cell phones in order to measure the impact of the quarantine. European legislation, in the General Data Protection Regulation, allows the use of personal data in health emergency situations, so these measures are legal especially if this data helps prevent future contagion.

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