The pandemic showed that big tech isn’t a public health savior

Nicole Wetsman at Verge: “…It seemed like Big Tech, with its analytic firepower and new focus on health, could help with these very real problems. “We saw all over the papers: Facebook is gonna save the world, and Google’s going to save the world,” says Katerini Storeng, a medical anthropologist who studies public-private partnerships in global public health at the University of Oslo. Politicians were eager to welcome Silicon Valley to the table and to discuss the best ways to manage the pandemic. “It was remarkable, and indicative of a blurring of the boundaries between the public domain and the private domain,” Storeng says.

Over a year later, many of the promised tech innovations never materialized. There are areas where tech companies have made significant contributions — like collecting mobility data that helped officials understand the effects of social distancing policies. But Google wasn’t actually building a nationwide testing website. The program that eventually appeared, a testing program for California run by Google’s sibling company Verily, was quietly phased out after it created more problems than it solved.

Now, after a year, we’re starting to get a clear picture of what worked, what didn’t, and what the relationship between Big Tech and public health might look like in the future.

Tech companies were interested in health before the pandemic, and COVID-19 accelerated those initiatives. There may be things that tech companies are better equipped to handle than traditional public health agencies and other public institutions, and the past year showed some of those strengths. But it also showed their weaknesses and underscored the risks to putting health responsibilities in the hands of private companies — which have goals outside of the public good.

When the pandemic started, Storeng was already studying how private companies participated in public health preparedness efforts. Over the past two decades, consumers and health officials have become more and more confident that tech hacks can be shortcuts to healthy communities. These digital hacks can take many forms and include everything from a smartphone app nudging people toward exercise to a data model analyzing how an illness spreads, she says.

“What they have in common, I think, is this hope and optimism that it’ll help bypass some more systemic, intrinsic problems,” Storeng says.

But healthcare and public health present hard problems. Parachuting in with a new approach that isn’t based on a detailed understanding of the existing system doesn’t always work. “I think we tend to believe in our culture that higher tech, private sector is necessarily better,” says Melissa McPheeters, co-director of the Center for Improving the Public’s Health through Informatics at Vanderbilt University. “Sometimes that’s true. And sometimes it’s not.”

McPheeters spent three years as the director of the Office of Informatics and Analytics at the Tennessee Department of Health. While in that role, she got calls from technology companies all the time, promising quick fixes to any data issues the department was facing. But they were more interested in delivering a product than a collaboration, she says. “It never began with, ‘Help me understand your problem.’”…(More)”