Five ways the coronavirus went digital

Sam Bettis, Customer Engagement Director

Perhaps there’s nothing more analogue than the common cold, but the novel coronavirus, a related infection, has gained a fascinating digital life. And, although its official designation was given a little too late for widespread adoption, ‘Covid-19’ has already generated tens of millions of tweets and posts.

Since 2002/03 when SARS was in the news, our digital world has changed beyond recognition. In the UK alone, roughly half the population now get their news from social media. While scientists, researchers and authorities work hard to contain and treat the outbreak, we wanted to look at whether digital innovation is helping or hindering the fight against the new virus.

1. Spreading fact and fiction

Rumour travelling faster than fact is true still in the digital age. Social media companies are feeling the pressure to balance more social responsibility with freedom of expression. Coronavirus-based conspiracies quickly appeared online, from claims of state-sponsored bio-warfare to bogus cures using cleaning products. Many posts stoke fear and racism in the real world.

However, social media companies take different approaches to help users find credible information (or restrict totally bogus information). Twitter places links to credible sources first in relevant searches under ‘Know the Facts’ but leaves other posts alone.

While Facebook takes content case-by-case based on the level of harm the misinformation could cause, something that might be lethal is removed while something just untrue is limited from spreading.

2. Tracking infections and patients

Identifying potential carriers is vital to limiting the spread of the disease, and there are digital solutions helping to identify the infected.

Chinese search engine Baidu, for example, is helping to data-map the flow of people in Chinese cities to help track suspected patients, while Hong Kong-based SenseTime have created a powerful surveillance algorithm to improve the ability to identify and track fever patients in a crowd.

One of the most surprising uses of technology by some Chinese authorities has been the use of drones with loudspeakers to encourage people to stay indoors or wear protective clothing.

3. Supporting hospitals and care workers

Another area where digital innovation is making a difference is in supporting frontline workers.

In some Chinese hospitals, robots have been enlisted to reduce staff exposure to coronavirus. TMiRob has deployed dozens of robots to help sterilise hospitals, deliver medicines and check body temperatures. In fact, they’re in such demand there is now a shortage as TMiRob can’t make them fast enough.

Even ride-hailing apps are helping in the fight against the virus. Chinese company, Didi, has been helping medical workers travel to and from work.

4. Helping scientists and researchers

For all the hype around AI, it’s heartening to hear how it is coming into its own in this crisis.

Beijing-based Alibaba has created an open-source coronavirus data platform to help scientists and researchers pool information and resources, and it has made its cloud-based AI software accessible to scientists to accelerate research.

AI has already made a huge difference; using Baidu’s AI capability to speed up the analysis of the virus, scientists have already reduced the time to analyse a sample from an hour to under 30 seconds.

5. Offering the public help and reassurance

It’s not just scientists and researchers benefiting from digital innovation. WeChat users in China can find their nearest outpatient clinic on new maps created by the app. Baidu and Alibaba created AI-enabled chatbots to help conduct health questionnaires and answer simple questions such as ‘how do you safely dispose of a used face mask?’.

Health apps are becoming vital tools to help assess patients at a distance. The Japanese government gave away 2,000 iPhones to quarantined crew and passengers onboard the Diamond Princess, just so they could access a specially created government app to let them chat with doctors without any need for doctors to step onboard the ship.

Digital offers hope in a time of crisis

All these technologies existed before coronavirus was discovered, but what this emerging virus has done has created an opportunity for these technologies to be immediately beneficial in difficult circumstances. There are a lot of companies that are using their digital and economic resources to help the fight against coronavirus, whether it’s through reducing the impact of misinformation or providing robot assistants to hospitals. It’s clear digital innovation is playing a key role in fighting this new and deadly disease.

Could the successful implementation of these digital tools eventually prove to be a turning point in the way we tackle global crises in the future?


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