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Viruses and Bits

The partnership of Apple and Google to release interoperable technology to support Covid-19 tracing through apps on smartphone has made headlines. Image credit: Apple

It’s Easter but we are not talking about eggs, rather about the epidemic. The virus did not take a vacation time and waiting for a vaccine that is still down the road is unsatisfactory. So many people are turning to technology and to bits in particular. There is an unlimited number of them and the only issue is how to aggregate them in the right way ūüėČ

I mentioned in previous weeks the number of apps that sprout up in the last months, in the hundreds. Last month the Italian Ministry of Innovation called for submission of ideas to use cellphones for tracking the epidemics (and evaluating contagion risk) resulting again in hundreds of proposals. More recently, on April 8th, 2020, the European Commission called for a unified strategy in developing apps and managing data to fight the Covid-19 epidemics. Apple and Google have just agreed to partner on releasing a Covid-19 tracing technology that can lead to interoperable apps.

The use of smartphones and Bluetooth seems the leading approach, although there are also a few dissonant voices on the drawbacks of Bluetooth in this area.

Eit Digital is focussing its strength to foster Digital Ideas and turn them into reality in the fight of epidemics. Image credit: EIT Digital

The EIT Digital is planning a DeepHack on May 1st to 3rd to be played on line (of course!) looking for::

  • Alert or monitoring system using mobile DATA
  • Info provisioning and sharing DATA relevant to COVID-19
  • Systematic DATA analysis in different regions, populations and age groups (allowing for more targeted responses)
  • Integration of epidemic and economic DATA in order to drive more accurate societal impact analysis

They are focussing on “bits”, not looking at pharma and medical solutions. They usually attract the brightest and are able to transform ideas into executable actions so that’s the place to be or, at least, to watch!

I will be giving a webinar on April 16th together with Derrick de Kerckhove on this topic (get info and register here). expanding on the webinar we gave last week, going deeper in the discussion and trying to promote the idea that yes, it is great to find a patch for this epidemic but what we should really do is to create a cyber support that can avoid epidemics like this to take hold in the future. We have the technology toolkit: the Digital Transformation applied to healthcare and most importantly to Society can be a great help. Mind you. I do not think that technology alone can solve this problem, we need to have the convergence of culture, society and regulation with technology and, by the way, don’t forget to take economics into account.

Using bits to fight epidemics can be effective. To understand this we should look at the factors sustaining the epidemics. The spread involves:

  1. the intrinsic virus infectivity or basic Reproduction Number (R0) on which bits can do …nothing;
  2. the Effective Reproduction Number (Re=xR0) that is lower by a factor of x (x is less than 1). Bits can decrease the value of x by helping in segmenting the population, monitoring the interchange among segments, increase individual awareness. Notice that decreasing R, even by a small factor, has tremendous impact on the number of cases. As back of the envelope calculation, if you assume 21,000 people infected and an R0 of 1.15 you get after 2 months 105,873,570 people infected. If you manage to reduce Re to 1,05 the number of people infected after 2 months will be 411,876, still quite a bit but nothing in comparison to the previous figure!
  3. a logistic penetration where as the number of cases exceeds a certain value the R starts to decrease (once all people have been affected there is no one left to infect, hence Re goes to 0!). Bits can help in monitoring the contagion and decrease the availability of susceptible persons, thus decreasing Re;
  4. provide early detection of infected people. This results in isolation and in a delay in the uprise of the infection curve in addition to reducing R. This again leads to a significant reduction of cases.
  5. A big value of using bits and smartphones lies in the possibility of increasing people awareness, thus leading to  safer behaviour that in turns decreases Re.

I am all in favour of these initiatives aiming at leveraging the power of bits, even more if they aim at a more comprehensive scenario, not just to patching up the current epidemic, by inserting these actions into the ongoing Digital Transformation. As I said, this requires the involvement of societal and regulatory aspects.

I am really concerned by the position of the Western Countries that to safeguard individual rights and privacy are thinking of voluntary adoption of apps for fighting the epidemic. Simulation shows that there should be at least a 60% uptake (download and use) of a common app (or interoperable apps) to provide some effect. More than that, simulation shows that even a small 10% of susceptible people not complying to safety measures (isolation) will make it impossible to decrease Re below 1, that is the epidemic will keep going on and on (although at a slower pace). You can get the visual impact of this simulation here (if you are in a rush go directly to minute 11, but I think it is worth looking it through).

I subscribe to what Shoshana Zuboff said (and she is above suspicion being the co-author of the book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism where she takes a stand against the present unchecked exploitation of private data):

Fxxk Privacy! 

The apps to control the virus should be controlled  by public institutions
and be mandatory, as vaccines are

And, by the way, Happy Easter. It is the first one we are spending locked down at home. Let’s make sure it will be the last….

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.