Home / Blog / Lights and Shadows of Covid-19 on Digital Transformation – IX

Lights and Shadows of Covid-19 on Digital Transformation – IX

66% of Italian people seem to be in favour of using a tracing app and just 24% say they would feel uneasy in using it. Image credit: Altroconsumo

Moving on with the other questions:

2. Will ‘digital twin’ thinking play a role in facilitating the Government’s office guidance and, if so, how?

Several businesses are currently using sort of digital twins in profiling their customers. They trace their activity, perform data analytics on virtual communities (birds of a feather) to evaluate shopping and interest trends and use this information for advertisement targeting (and sometimes for targeted pricing).

Increased availability of sensing, processing, storage and analytics keeps pushing towards the creation of more and more comprehensive customer’s records and these may be the seeds for the implementation of “personal” Digital Twins.

The proponents of Personal Digital Twins are ready to point out the implication of “Personal”: it should refer both to the fact that the Digital Twin is mirroring person characteristics AND that is controlled/owned by the person (at least this is the Western culture interpretation). So far all implementations of personal digital twin have been made by companies with the implicit/explicit consent of customer (most often implicit). A regulatory framework is needed and Governments should take the lead in the definition of a framework. So far the approach has been towards the limitation of personal information capture and use (GDPR) rather than its exploitation. Both regulatory and standardisation frameworks are needed and the current epidemic can stimulate creation and adoption. The recent agreement between Apple and Google to agree on API for Bluetooth communications usable for tracing is creating a de-facto standard (although much more is needed, as an example to exchange physiological data from wearables to applications).
Notice how the creation of personal digital twins (an extension of the concept of personal identity that is now widely used) would have important applications in many areas, including a shift towards proactive healthcare.

Today Governments are facing an emergency and it makes perfect sense to turn to available tools and proved technologies. There is no time for inventing something new and even less for testing it. However, Governments should take this emergency as a warning bell that something like this might show up again in a few years. Most Governments missed the warning from SARS and MERS and we are now paying the consequences. It should not happen again.

Whilst for SARS and MERS most Countries were not affected and the general feeling among the population was “it is not affecting me, why bother”, now everybody has been affected and awareness is strong. So if 10 years ago it might have been difficult for a Government to propose and pass a legislation that implied a change in culture, like sharing healthcare data, now it is easier, people may actually expecting it.

I was surprised in these last week of the opposition, in Italy, by a few against tracing apps, with strong concern on privacy violation. These “opposers” made the headlines of national  newspapers and were voiced in television talks giving the impression that the “majority” would be against a tracing app.
Just few days ago a polling promoted by the National Consumers Association proved that the Italian sentiment towards a tracing app is quite positive with just 24% of people saying that they would feel uneasy in using such an app.

This is a clear demonstration that the Covid-19 has left quite a mark in people’s perception and that privacy concerns come after safety perception.

Governments should leverage on this favourable feeling from “voters” to move more decisively towards the Digital Transformation of Healthcare. Part of it is the creation and use of Personal Digital Twins. We already have (in many Countries) digital health records. Often we lack interoperability (standards and standardised API) to access and exchange these records. The impulse we have seen in these weeks towards tele-medicine to expedite triage and to provide cure-at-home means that more and more data will be generated “on the patient” and these data can remain under the patient control (possibly in her smartphone!). This may be another force towards the creation and use of personal digital twins. For these we also need an architecture for data management.
There is quite a bit of work, and research, to come up with a worldwide healthcare safety network. This epidemic may provide the initial push in this direction. Let’s hope we are not wasting this opportunity.

Of course the Digital Transformation of Healthcare will not succeed unless it takes into account privacy, but this should be done balancing benefits with the little sharing of data that is required. All of our Society is a compromise between personal and societal benefits. A healthcare safety net is nothing different.

3. Would there be any challenges or barriers for companies using digital twins to navigate the guidance around COVID-19?

As mentioned today we do not have real implementation of personal digital twins, we have profiling but this is just a tiny part of the overall data set characterising a digital twin. In our Western culture the development of personal digital twins is unlikely without an accepted/regulated framework. The current GDPR scheme is usually applied in a restricted way and this basically hampers their development.

In the context of the guidance around COVID-19 personal digital twins may provide a way for effective tracing but the very concept of tracing is looked upon with suspicion by several constituencies. This, however, as pointed out in the answer to the previous question, is for tomorrow, not for today, Nevertheless tomorrow will not come, unless we start working today to make it happen.

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 New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. 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.