As individuals, we are merely a microcosm of a larger global organism. Our economy, supply chain, businesses, and personal health have followed this evolution in turn. In recent weeks, we have watched as a virus ran roughshod over the planet, thrusting us all into a reality where our freedom of movement and choice is limited in ways we couldn’t have previously imagined.
While we may be divided on our points-of-view on various responses and what the right next steps are, one thing is clear: Our governments, economies, healthcare systems, businesses, and overall communities weren’t ready for this.
Despite conflicting perspectives, a new resolve should be resoundingly clear on both sides of the fence: “Never again.” We’ve endured death, illness, fear, lost jobs and business, financial fallout, and an enormous economic and social toll that we cannot yet begin to measure. Now, as an innovating industry, we must focus our sharpest minds on shoring up a glaring weakness to our very way of life: the impact of globalization on public health.
In a world where tech pervades every avenue of our existence and, in the process, generates data sets of unimaginable depth and myriad applications of value, we should ask:
- How could this data power innovation that could curb or prevent future public health crises?
- Where do gaps exist in data and supply chains that would help us proactively determine when and where we should act?
- What data points matter in identifying hotspots and determining effective preventative action?
- Who oversees this? What role do the public versus private sector have in supporting these efforts?
- How much can we trust guidance and data from government agencies and other politically-influenced organizations?
- In the resulting world, how will we protect our privacy and civil liberties?
Over the past decade, we’ve seen design and tech move mountains, disrupting entire industries that once seemed impervious to change. It’s not outlandish to think that — with the support of the medical and scientific community — the disciplines of design, data science, and technology can pave the way to preventing future pandemics, and perhaps spur positive change to health and healthcare globally. The ingredients?
During any pandemic, the keys should be collaboration, transparency, and cooperation across both the public and private sectors, and competitors.
There are many low-hanging fruits, to be sure. Campaigns around public awareness, encouragement of good hygiene practices, and communicating current regional exposure risks are just a few. However, getting to the crux of effective suppression requires systematic change. Moreover, it requires us to identify, create, and leverage of data sets and tools that reach beyond the bounds of human connection and reasoning.
Looking at the Whitehouse’s Guidelines for Opening Up America Again , there are many opportunities for designers, data scientists, and technologists to innovate and provide permanent systems that allow society to make the right decisions for public health at the right times. And, like most juicy problems, from a design and tech perspective, this is all about data.
If we just boiled these guidelines down to a few focused areas, we would start to see a need for systems that allow us to identify positive patterns in the data, visualize the data, and react in kind. As we look at the path back to “normalcy,” — and whatever that might look like — we’re told the key to suppressing hotspots, determining threat level, and taking meaningful action rest on:
- Monitoring and up-to-date data on influenza-like illnesses reported within a 14-day period, which requires systematic, widespread, and readily-available testing.
- Comprehensive and universally-available testing paired with fast and effective contact tracing. Individuals exposed to confirmed cases must receive a timely notification to limit asymptomatic/pre-symptomatic spread.
- Availability of and updated data on the availability of medical supplies, including ventilators and PPE, and hospital capacities. We must understand the surge capacities of our healthcare facilities, and where there may be surpluses or deficiencies in necessary supplies.
We face a significant challenge — one that spans many industries and organizations — across both the public and private sectors.
None of this data exists in one place, is not freely accessible, and some of it may not exist at all. Solving these problems cannot be done by one business, industry, or entity alone.
As we start to scratch the surface on data points that do currently exist, which might aid in the advancement of these challenges, things like inventory systems, anonymized cell phone and social media data, and de-identified public symptom tracking through wearables or IoT devices come to mind. It’s not difficult to see how we might leverage these types of data sets to begin solving pandemic-like problems.
Left up to Big Tech or the Government alone, many rightfully point to privacy concerns of data utilized outside of its intended purpose.
A sufficient balance and collaboration might call for a consortium of public and private entities to come together to share what they have in the spirit of solving this common enemy. In the process, they should enlist technologists, medical experts, data scientists, user experience, and visual designers to create systems and tools that provide open and transparent information to all, rooted in factual and up-to-date data.
The task ahead is not impossible, and solving it could spark fundamental change to meaningful and early epidemic response in the future, which, ethics aside, is inarguably economically prudent. For companies, the economic benefits to business-as-usual are well worn.
Now, industries are becoming painfully aware of how employee and global health factors into our collective ability to conduct business and live life as we always have.
The benefits of fixing our shortcomings are apparent. We are only just starting to understand the cost of doing nothing.