The outbreak of COVID-19 has meant big changes to the way most people live their lives. As many of us were forced to leave traditional workspaces, organisations and employees alike breathed a sigh of relief that technology enabled much of the population to continue working from home.
But, easy remote working is not the only way in which technology can help to control the spread and limit the impact of new viruses.
Throughout the pandemic, there has been a huge volume of publicly available data and statistics on the coronavirus – rate of infection, number of lives lost, jobs furloughed, businesses closed, the list goes on. Because this is a global concern, there can sometimes be conflicting numbers, which can lead to confusion and lack of trust. The UK Government, for instance, recently revised the death toll by more than 5,000, following changes to the way information is recorded. Plus, a number of conspiracy theories involving everything from 5G technology to false cures and a secret vaccine have contributed to the overall feeling of concern and uncertainty.
Fortunately, technology is helping us to determine the truth from the tall tales. When Madonna shared the popular secret vaccine theory, for example, Instagram blurred the video and labelled it as ‘false information’. Facebook says it placed warning labels on 90 million pieces of content related to COVID-19 in March and April, which prevented people viewing the content 95 per cent of the time, and notified those who have liked, shared or commented that the original post had been deleted. Twitter, too, has a dedicated news area for COVID-19 information from verified accounts and reliable sources. And, TikTok has partnered with the World Health Organisation (WHO) to keep users appropriately informed, with a live stream from the WHO to answer user questions. Misinformation can thrive on social media, so the tech giants must do something to control its spread.
Elsewhere, Microsoft Bing launched an interactive COVID-19 tracker to share news of the virus and easily compare one country’s data to another. Sixfold, too, has published a live map, in this case to show border crossing times which allows Europe’s supply chains to anticipate delays in real time. And in India, telecom operators such as Jio, BSNL and Airtel play a coronavirus message to users ahead of their placing a call.
World governments have also been using technology to help record and maintain accurate information. 167 of the 193 United Nations member states have provided data on their national portals, mobile apps or through social media platforms. Here in the UK, the government launched an automated chatbot service via WhatsApp which answers the most commonly posed COVID-19 questions. WhatsApp has been used similarly in South Africa, where the government has been using the platform to spread information on symptoms and testing, as well as debunking false claims about cures.
In Nigeria, health authorities have partnered with Facebook to send push notifications to users with information on symptoms and prevention, and Twitter to promote medical advice from authoritative sources. And, in Taiwan, the Central Epidemic Command Centre (CECC) is combining health data with travel data to provide a monitoring system with real time alerts, automating messages to those who may have come into contact with an infected person.
When a pandemic occurs, clear and consistent messaging is critical, not only to help control the spread of the virus, but to build and retain public confidence and trust. By providing visibility on the outbreak, technology helps us to separate reliable data from misinformation, helping us to get back to normality that much faster.