How Civic Technology Can Help Stop a Pandemic


Jaron Lanier and E. Glen Weyl at Foreign Affairs: “The spread of the novel coronavirus and the resulting COVID-19 pandemic have provided a powerful test of social and governance systems. Neither of the world’s two leading powers, China and the United States, has been particularly distinguished in responding. In China, an initial bout of political denial allowed the virus to spread for weeks, first domestically and then globally, before a set of forceful measures proved reasonably effective. (The Chinese government also should have been better prepared, given that viruses have jumped from animal hosts to humans within its territory on multiple occasions in the past.) The United States underwent its own bout of political denial before adopting social-distancing policies; even now, its lack of investment in public health leaves it ill-equipped for this sort of emergency.

The response of the bureaucratic and often technophobic European Union may prove even worse: Italy, although far from the epicenter of the outbreak, has four times the per capita rate of cases as China does, and even famously orderly Germany is already at half China’s rate. Nations in other parts of the world, such as information-manipulating Iran, provide worse examples yet.

Focusing on the countries that have done worst, however, may be less useful at this point than considering which country has so far done best: Taiwan. Despite being treated by the World Health Organization as part of China, and despite having done far broader testing than the United States (meaning the true rate of infection is far less hidden), Taiwan has only one-fifth the rate of known cases in the United States and less than one-tenth the rate in widely praised Singapore. Infections could yet spike again, especially with the global spread making visitors from around the world vectors of the virus. Yet the story of Taiwan’s initial success is worth sharing not just because of its lessons for containing the present pandemic but also because of its broader lessons about navigating pressing challenges around technology and democracy.

Taiwan’s success has rested on a fusion of technology, activism, and civic participation. A small but technologically cutting-edge democracy, living in the shadow of the superpower across the strait, Taiwan has in recent years developed one of the world’s most vibrant political cultures by making technology work to democracy’s advantage rather than detriment. This culture of civic technology has proved to be the country’s strongest immune response to the new coronavirus….(More)”.

Data Reveals the True Impact of the Coronavirus Outbreak


Gian Volpicelli at Wired: “Something was wrong with Malaysia’s internet. It was March 13, and the more Simon Angus looked at the data, the more he suspected that the country might be in the midst of a coronavirus crisis.

Angus is an academic at Monash University and the cofounder of Kaspr Datahaus, a Melbourne-based company that analyses the quality of global internet connection to glean economic and social insights. The company monitors millions of internet-connected devices to gauge internet speed across the world. For them, a sudden deterioration in a country’s internet speed means that something is putting the network under strain. In recent weeks Kaspr’s theory is that the “something” is linked to the Covid-19 epidemics – as people who are working from home, or quarantining, or staying home as a precaution start using the internet more intensely than usual.

“For people who are in lockdown, or in panic mode, or in self-isolation, the internet has become a fundamentally important part of their information source, and of their consumption of entertainment,” Angus says.

To put it bluntly, when millions more turn on Netflix, scroll through TikTok, start a Zoom call, play Fortnite, or simply scroll idly through Twitter, that has repercussions on the quality of the country’s internet. (That is why EU commissioner Thierry Breton asked Netflix to restrict high-definition streaming until the emergency is over.)

Now, Angus’ scanning had detected that Malaysia’s internet had become over five percent slower in the March 12 to 13 timespan—worse even than in locked-down Italy. Officially, though, Malaysia had only 129 confirmed coronavirus cases—a relatively low number, although it had been inching up for a week.

What was happening, though, was that the population was cottoning on to the government’s sloppy handling of the pandemic. In late February, in what would turn out to be a monumental blunder, authorities had allowed a religious mass gathering to go ahead in Kuala Lumpur. Once Covid-19 cases linked to the event started to emerge, the government scrambled to find all the attendees, but got the numbers wrong—first saying that only 5,000 people at the gathering were Malaysia residents, then updating the figure to 10,000 and then 14,500. With the mess laid bare, many Malaysians seemed to have decided to stay at home out of sheer self-preservation…(More)”.

How Taiwan Used Big Data, Transparency and a Central Command to Protect Its People from Coronavirus


Article by Beth Duff-Brown: “…So what steps did Taiwan take to protect its people? And could those steps be replicated here at home?

Stanford Health Policy’s Jason Wang, MD, PhD, an associate professor of pediatrics at Stanford Medicine who also has a PhD in policy analysis, credits his native Taiwan with using new technology and a robust pandemic prevention plan put into place at the 2003 SARS outbreak.

“The Taiwan government established the National Health Command Center (NHCC) after SARS and it’s become part of a disaster management center that focuses on large-outbreak responses and acts as the operational command point for direct communications,” said Wang, a pediatrician and the director of the Center for Policy, Outcomes, and Prevention at Stanford. The NHCC also established the Central Epidemic Command Center, which was activated in early January.

“And Taiwan rapidly produced and implemented a list of at least 124 action items in the past five weeks to protect public health,” Wang said. “The policies and actions go beyond border control because they recognized that that wasn’t enough.”

Wang outlines the measures Taiwan took in the last six weeks in an article published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“Given the continual spread of COVID-19 around the world, understanding the action items that were implemented quickly in Taiwan, and the effectiveness of these actions in preventing a large-scale epidemic, may be instructive for other countries,” Wang and his co-authors wrote.

Within the last five weeks, Wang said, the Taiwan epidemic command center rapidly implemented those 124 action items, including border control from the air and sea, case identification using new data and technology, quarantine of suspicious cases, educating the public while fighting misinformation, negotiating with other countries — and formulating policies for schools and businesses to follow.

Big Data Analytics

The authors note that Taiwan integrated its national health insurance database with its immigration and customs database to begin the creation of big data for analytics. That allowed them case identification by generating real-time alerts during a clinical visit based on travel history and clinical symptoms.

Taipei also used Quick Response (QR) code scanning and online reporting of travel history and health symptoms to classify travelers’ infectious risks based on flight origin and travel history in the last 14 days. People who had not traveled to high-risk areas were sent a health declaration border pass via SMS for faster immigration clearance; those who had traveled to high-risk areas were quarantined at home and tracked through their mobile phones to ensure that they stayed home during the incubation period.

The country also instituted a toll-free hotline for citizens to report suspicious symptoms in themselves or others. As the disease progressed, the government called on major cities to establish their own hotlines so that the main hotline would not become jammed….(More)”.

How Singapore sends daily Whatsapp updates on coronavirus


Medha Basu at GovInsider: “How do you communicate with citizens as a pandemic stirs fear and spreads false news? Singapore has trialled WhatsApp to give daily updates on the Covid-19 virus.

The World Health Organisation’s chief praised Singapore’s reaction to the outbreak. “We are very impressed with the efforts they are making to find every case, follow up with contacts, and stop transmission,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

Since late January, the government has been providing two to three daily updates on cases via the messaging app. “Fake news is typically propagated through Whatsapp, so messaging with the same interface can help stem this flow,” Sarah Espaldon, Operations Marketing Manager from Singapore’s Open Government Products unit told GovInsider….

The niche system became newly vital as Covid-19 arrived, with fake news and fear following quickly in a nation that still remembers the fatal SARS outbreak of 2003. The tech had to be upgraded to ensure it could cope with new demand, and get information out rapidly before misinformation could sow discord.

The Open Government Products team used three tools to adapt Whatsapp and create a rapid information sharing system.

1. AI Translation

Singapore has four official languages – Chinese, English, Malay and Tamil. Government used an AI tool to rapidly translate the material from English, so that every community receives the information as quickly as possible.

An algorithm produces the initial draft of the translation, which is then vetted by civil servants before being sent out on WhatsApp. The AI was trained using text from local government communications so is able to translate references and names of Singapore government schemes. This project was built by the Ministry of Communication and Information and Agency for Science, Technology and Research in collaboration with GovTech.

2. Make it easy to sign up

People specify their desired language through an easy sign up form. Singapore used Form.Sg, a tool that allows officials to launch a new mailing list in 30 minutes and connect to other government systems. A government-built form ensures that data is end-to-end encrypted and connected to the government cloud.

3. Fast updates

The updates were initially too slow in reaching people. It took four hours to add new subscribers to the recipient list and the system could send only 10 messages per second. “With 500,000 subscribers, it would take almost 14 hours for the last person to get the message,” Espaldon says….(More)”.

How big data is dividing the public in China’s coronavirus fight – green, yellow, red


Article by Viola Zhou: “On Valentine’s Day, a 36-year-old lawyer Matt Ma in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang discovered he had been coded “red”.The colour, displayed in a payment app on his smartphone, indicated that he needed to be quarantined at home even though he had no symptoms of the dangerous coronavirus.

Without a green light from the system, Ma could not travel from his ancestral hometown of Lishui to his new home city of Hangzhou, which is now surrounded by checkpoints set up to contain the epidemic.

Ma is one of the millions of people whose movements are being choreographed by the government through software that feeds on troves of data and issues orders that effectively dictate whether they must stay in or can go to work.Their experience represents a slice of China’s desperate attempt to stop the coronavirus by using a mixed bag of cutting-edge technologies and old-fashioned surveillance. It was also a rare real-world test of the use of technology on a large scale to halt the spread of communicable diseases.

“This kind of massive use of technology is unprecedented,” said Christos Lynteris, a medical anthropologist at the University of St Andrews who has studied epidemics in China.

But Hangzhou’s experiment has also revealed the pitfalls of applying opaque formulas to a large population.

In the city’s case, there are reports of people being marked incorrectly, falling victim to an algorithm that is, by the government’s own admission, not perfect….(More)”.

Crowdsourcing data to mitigate epidemics


Gabriel M Leung and Kathy Leung at The Lancet: “Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has spread with unprecedented speed and scale since the first zoonotic event that introduced the causative virus—severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2)—into humans, probably during November, 2019, according to phylogenetic analyses suggesting the most recent common ancestor of the sequenced genomes emerged between Oct 23, and Dec 16, 2019. The reported cumulative number of confirmed patients worldwide already exceeds 70 000 in almost 30 countries and territories as of Feb 19, 2020, although that the actual number of infections is likely to far outnumber this case count.

During any novel emerging epidemic, let alone one with such magnitude and speed of global spread, a first task is to put together a line list of suspected, probable, and confirmed individuals on the basis of working criteria of the respective case definitions. This line list would allow for quick preliminary assessment of epidemic growth and potential for spread, evidence-based determination of the period of quarantine and isolation, and monitoring of efficiency of detection of potential cases. Frequent refreshing of the line list would further enable real-time updates as more clinical, epidemiological, and virological (including genetic) knowledge become available as the outbreak progresses….

We surveyed different and varied sources of possible line lists for COVID-19 (appendix pp 1–4). A bottleneck remains in carefully collating as much relevant data as possible, sifting through and verifying these data, extracting intelligence to forecast and inform outbreak strategies, and thereafter repeating this process in iterative cycles to monitor and evaluate progress. A possible methodological breakthrough would be to develop and validate algorithms for automated bots to search through cyberspaces of all sorts, by text mining and natural language processing (in languages not limited to English) to expedite these processes.In this era of smartphone and their accompanying applications, the authorities are required to combat not only the epidemic per se, but perhaps an even more sinister outbreak of fake news and false rumours, a so-called infodemic…(More)”.

Smart Village Technology


Book by Srikanta Patnaik, Siddhartha Sen and Magdi S. Mahmoud: “This book offers a transdisciplinary perspective on the concept of “smart villages” Written by an authoritative group of scholars, it discusses various aspects that are essential to fostering the development of successful smart villages. Presenting cutting-edge technologies, such as big data and the Internet-of-Things, and showing how they have been successfully applied to promote rural development, it also addresses important policy and sustainability issues. As such, this book offers a timely snapshot of the state-of-the-art in smart village research and practice….(More)”.

The many perks of using critical consumer user data for social benefit


Sushant Kumar at LiveMint: “Business models that thrive on user data have created profitable global technology companies. For comparison, market capitalization of just three tech companies, Google (Alphabet), Facebook and Amazon, combined is higher than the total market capitalization of all listed firms in India. Almost 98% of Facebook’s revenue and 84% of Alphabet’s come from serving targeted advertising powered by data collected from the users. No doubt, these tech companies provide valuable services to consumers. It is also true that profits are concentrated with private corporations and societal value for contributors of data, that is, the user, can be much more significant….

In the existing economic construct, private firms are able to deploy top scientists and sophisticated analytical tools to collect data, derive value and monetize the insights.

Imagine if personalization at this scale was available for more meaningful outcomes, such as for administering personalized treatment for diabetes, recommending crop patterns, optimizing water management and providing access to credit to the unbanked. These socially beneficial applications of data can generate undisputedly massive value.

However, handling critical data with accountability to prevent misuse is a complex and expensive task. What’s more, private sector players do not have any incentives to share the data they collect. These challenges can be resolved by setting up specialized entities that can manage data—collect, analyse, provide insights, manage consent and access rights. These entities would function as a trusted intermediary with public purpose, and may be named “data stewards”….(More)”.

See also: http://datastewards.net/ and https://datacollaboratives.org/

If China valued free speech, there would be no coronavirus crisis


Verna Yu in The Guardian: “…Despite the flourishing of social media, information is more tightly controlled in China than ever. In 2013, an internal Communist party edict known as Document No 9 ordered cadres to tackle seven supposedly subversive influences on society. These included western-inspired notions of press freedom, “universal values” of human rights, civil rights and civic participation. Even within the Communist party, cadres are threatened with disciplinary action for expressing opinions that differ from the leadership.

Compared with 17 years ago, Chinese citizens enjoy even fewer rights of speech and expression. A few days after 34-year-old Li posted a note in his medical school alumni social media group on 30 December, stating that seven workers from a local live-animal market had been diagnosed with an illness similar to Sars and were quarantined in his hospital, he was summoned by police. He was made to sign a humiliating statement saying he understood if he “stayed stubborn and failed to repent and continue illegal activities, (he) will be disciplined by the law”….

Unless Chinese citizens’ freedom of speech and other basic rights are respected, such crises will only happen again. With a more globalised world, the magnitude may become even greater – the death toll from the coronavirus outbreak is already comparable to the total Sars death toll.

Human rights in China may appear to have little to do with the rest of the world but as we have seen in this crisis, disaster could occur when China thwarts the freedoms of its citizens. Surely it is time the international community takes this issue more seriously….(More)”.

Urban Poverty Alleviation Endeavor Through E-Warong Program: Smart City (Smart People) Concept Initiative in Yogyakarta


Paper by Djaka Marwasta and Farid Suprianto: “In the era of Industrial Revolution 4.0, technology became a factor that could contribute significantly to improving the quality of life and welfare of the people of a nation. Information and Communication Technology (ICT) penetration through Internet of Things (IoT), Big Data, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) which are disruptively, has led to fundamental advances in civilization. The expansion of Industrial Revolution 4.0 has also changed the pattern of government and citizen relations which has implications for the needs of policy governance and internal government transformation. One of them is a change in social welfare development policies, where government officials are required to be responsive to social dynamics that have consequences for increasing demands for public accountability and transparency.

This paper aims to elaborate on the e-Warong program as one of the breakthroughs to reduce poverty by utilizing digital technology. E-Warong (electronic mutual cooperation shop) is an Indonesian government program based on the empowerment of the poor Grass Root Innovation (GRI) with an approach to building group awareness in encouraging the independence of the poor to develop joint ventures through mutual cooperation with utilizing ICT advantages. This program is an implementation of the Smart City concept, especially Smart Economy, within the Sustainable Development Goals framework….(More)”.