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Why has tech failed to live up to expectations during Covid?

communication technology
(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/violetkaipa)

It’s fair to say that very few could have expected what this year would bring. The greatest pandemic since the Spanish Flu of 1918, it’s elicited a response on a global scale barely seen since the two World Wars. Yet, the advancement of scientific understanding in today’s digital age produced early expectations as to how this disaster could be mitigated. Our science must be advanced enough now to cope. Our responses to emergencies are optimized now. Tech has the power to slow the spread of disease now, doesn’t it?

So, where has tech been as communities have struggled to come to terms with the effects of Covid-19?

Consumer technology, certainly, is increasing in pocket-sized power year-on-year. We can speak to our alarm clocks, find true love online, and view the world through drone and satellite technology. These people-focused technologies have fast become people’s best friend.

But tech has failed to remain by our sides during 2020. When it was needed most to track and trace, inform leadership decisions, and provide much-needed guidance, it was far from reliable. In fact, the technological response to Covid has been rather underwhelming.  The machines haven’t saved us. The robots didn’t take care of the sick. The algorithms didn’t help the most vulnerable. The solutions have been human and, in many ways, basic.

  • To avoid getting sick, we have been staying at home.
  • To avoid getting sick, we have been keeping two meters away from each other.
  • To avoid getting sick, we have been avoiding public transport.
  • To avoid getting sick, we have been wearing masks.
  • To avoid getting sick, we have been washing our hands (happy birthday to you…).

True - the greatest experiment in working from home of all time has worked better than most of us expected. True – the internet providers have been able to cope with huge demands from an army of remote workers. And true – streaming services have saved us from boredom (thank you Joe Exotic).  But our admiration has not been for technology during this crisis; instead we have been in awe of NHS workers, delivery drivers, shop workers, food manufacturers, and the police. We have very quickly learned who is an essential worker and who is not.       

So, where does that leave people like me? The data scientists, the academics, the engineers, the IT specialists? Where have they been during this pandemic?   

Here is the truth: technology is able to help us fight off challenges as big and global as a health emergency. Indeed, the technology is there: the artificial intelligence and the machine learning, the analytical tools, the scientists and engineers. There are pockets of expertise to be found all over the globe. The best scientific minds have been working on potential solutions and the work they have done has been nothing short of remarkable.

The problem is that this technology has not been deployed effectively during the crisis. It’s been late, it’s been inadequate for the job, or its been neglected entirely. Perhaps one of the reasons behind its sub-par performance is the fact that many business and government leaders could not envision what technology’s role should be in a crisis situation like this. As a consequence, technology could not be actioned when needed most: to help care home workers communicate with one another, or to ensure delivery drivers take the optimal route when distributing PPE or essential goods. We needed analytics to understand the best way to arrange hospital wards to maximize patient volumes in a safe way, and we needed artificial intelligence to decipher the next best step for governments to take when issuing guidance. These technologies exist already, but as a society we need a greater understanding of how they can help us before we can program the tech to assist us.

The need for digitalization

We also needed a better understanding of how technologies can assist us on a global scale. Air travel has often been blamed for the spread of the virus across nations, but our globalized world also provides the answer for fighting the pandemic on a global scale: sharing and developing ideas internationally. Operationalizing any technology for such a huge crisis on a worldwide scale was never going to be easy. But our globalized world calls for better connections between nations, datasets and scientists to find answers which protect us all, no matter the crisis. As it stands, siloed data inhibits our capability to care for our global community. International technological co-operation will be the solution to addressing these global challenges – not only regarding health, but also climate change and injustice.

Organizations already recognize the need for ‘digital transformation, whether because they have spotted competitors reaping the rewards, or because they understand that there are changes to be made within their own organization. However, what Covid has taught these organizations is that digital transformation is not a ‘nice to have’. Digital transformation, and the adoption of new technologies, is vital because our world is advancing at breakneck pace: pandemics are spreading, ice caps are melting, populations are booming. New technologies are designed to cope with our complex, rapidly expanding societies: we must not ignore them.

Looking back at how this year has panned out, many organizations will now be seeing why they should develop strategies for how their tech can have a genuine impact day-to-day. Their first step now is to overcome the ‘last mile’ of analytics: ensuring each technology they have adopted has a specific purpose, a strategy for deployment, and a knowledgeable team behind it to ensure it reaches its full potential. Analytics should be a key team player and consulted for all major decisions. Only by embracing analytics on this scale can society move towards the technological maturity it believes it already possesses.

Humans have proven themselves during this crisis. Their resilience, selflessness and inspiring spirit is not immune to fatigue, however. With the right technologies by their sides, humans can achieve greater efficiency and have more impact in times of crisis than ever. It will take a global response to deploy the analytics and artificial intelligence needed to face the oncoming crises of the 21st century. For now, we are all responsible for nurturing the technological maturity that will foster a quick response when necessary, and one which could ultimately save lives.

Dr. Iain Brown, Head of Data Science, SAS UK&I

Dr Iain Brown is Head of Data Science at SAS UK & Ireland.