• Jacob Paetsch

Changing World: A Pandemic in the Information Age

A World-Changing Event

Certain events change the course of human behavior forever. Consider airports before and after the tragedy of 9/11. Air travel across the globe was altered forever in a single moment that shook us to our core. Besides a huge escalation in security, much more in the flight industry changed beyond what was visible to the average person. Entire training procedures, real-time background checking, and massive co-operative database operations were developed to mitigate the risks that hadn't been exploited to such a devastating effect before. Now, in 2020, we face our own crisis that will change the world for future generations forever.

COVID-19 is a respiratory virus that has rapidly spread to almost every country in the world.

Cases of illness due to this virus are generally non-severe in those who are young and healthy, but the outbreak has the potential to overwhelm healthcare systems if left unchecked. Previously unidentified in humans, this particular infection highlights how technology will play a key role in the future of our fight against disease.

The Aid of Technology

Pandemics such as this are nothing new in terms of human history; in terms of overall severity, it is obvious that this illness (at least in terms of human life) will be less devastating than the Spanish Flu or Bubonic Plague. A huge part of this is improved medical processes and equipment. But another way to look at this particular period of time is as a case study for how new technology, detailed statistics, shared information, and improved data science are now playing an integral role in the medical world and beyond. This is the first pandemic in the age of information. Each week, every day, at any hour, we get updates on the number of cases, new scientific studies on the virus, and further information about what is going on across the globe. In addition to making the general public aware of what's going on via social media-based platforms, the fields of data science and artificial intelligence are huge areas of opportunity right now. Below are a few interesting examples of how technology continues to emerge as a key player being used in the fight against the coronavirus.

1) Warning Predictions and Analysis

Companies such as BlueDot (a Canadian health-monitoring platform) provide real-time insights by using AI to scan mass-media sources and articles from around the world. It also estimates dispersion models based on travel patterns to better inform their clients of risk severity in different parts of the world. They identified COVID-19 as a potential threat and sent out a warning message 9 days before WHO released any official statement. Read more about them on their website here: more info

2) Biometric Screening and Facial Recognition

Although certain countries (China specifically) have widespread surveillance and facial recognition tracking systems already in place, they are quickly becoming more adopted. These systems can even potentially detect fever in certain individuals and help contact-tracing to isolate people exposed to the sick individual if necessary. Companies such as Hanwang can even use facial recognition with a high degree of accuracy on people wearing masks. There is a vigorous ethical and societal debate about the use of technology in this way, especially regarding whether that infrastructure will remain in place after the pandemic has subsided: more info

3) Vaccine and Anti-Viral Drug Development Procedures

The development of a vaccine to a previously unknown disease is always a lengthy, complicated process. Better analysis techniques continue making the sequencing of genetic material far quicker. More specifically, there are virtual screenings being used on massive databases of FDA-approved drugs. These filters match the protein disruption of the drugs to the human-viral protein components. This way, a much more manageable list of likely candidates that will have an effect can be isolated: more info

4) Modelling and Tracking

Regular government updates have been released as the pandemic has progressed for their predictions of cases, deaths, and actions needed to prevent both. This is all based on analyst's computer models that heavily use both complex algorithms and massive datasets to cover a plethora of factors. These models can also explore different perspectives on the outbreak, such as economic forecasting. And you can be absolutely confident there are many more models than we've been exposed to that are being developed behind the spotlight of public information. See the Government of Alberta's well-designed, interactive tracking site for provincial cases here: more info

5) Statistic-Based Policies

If you've been aware of social media or the news during this time, you've heard the phrases "flatten the curve" and "social-distancing" very frequently. These both refer to lowering the wave of infections to avoid over-burdening our healthcare systems. The government response of limiting the spread of COVID-19 by implementing isolation measures are all driven by statistics that show these measures truly make a difference. This wouldn't have been nearly as apparent in the past without near-instant communication between countries and a joint effort to find the best ways to mitigate impact of the disease.

Concluding Remarks

Never before has there been so much collaboration - and so much misinformation - available to everyone about an ongoing crisis. Now, more than ever, people need to be checking source validity and ensuring that the information they 'echo' on social media is true. With that being said, emerging technology and the vast repository of information we now have in this modern-day global ecosystem present new opportunities to put our best foot forward in combating this illness and turn the page to a new normal - together.

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