The Surprising Role of Digital Technology During the Covid-19 Pandemic

March 31, 2020

Many of us were already using our phones for the majority of our waking hours, but during the current shelter-in-place-measures, digital technology has become more important than ever.

Now that we are unable to engage in face-to-face contact, remote communication through our personal digital devices, such as our smartphones, is essential for staying connected with friends, family and co-workers.

I would like to highlight three other ways that our digital devices could have a tremendous influence during this pandemic, but also discuss the challenges and the important role of data science herein.

1. Mental health apps might help to decrease anxiety and stress

The widespread media coverage on COVID-19, combined with social distancing measures, can make us feel anxious and stressed. There are smartphone apps backed up by research that can help people to cope with this difficult time. Therefore, it is critical that we take advantage of the digital tools at our disposal.

Multiple meditation and wellness apps designed by the private sector have now opened up free memberships to aid in easing anxiety. One example is Headspace, which has recently provided a collection of meditation and mindfulness content, specifically for COVID-19. You can find some more exampleshere

One caveat of these health and wellness apps is that many people download them, but most use them only for a short period of time. This may be because many apps are not personalized and engaging enough, leading to their users quickly losing interest. We may be able to use data science to improve these apps. For example, machine learning algorithms can deploy user data to create recommendation engines that predict user behavior and optimize the content of these apps.This is a great challenge in mobile health that needs significant work, but has tremendous potential. 

2. Apps can allow us to track COVID-19 symptoms and other measures of health

Multiple governments, universities and companies have ferociously been working on apps that allow people to track their COVID-19 symptoms and other health information, and receive updates on who in their surroundings has contracted the virus. For example aCOVID symptom tracker has already been downloaded by 75,000 people in the UK, and was made available in the US recently. This will eventually give researchers a gigantic dataset, to assess why COVID-19 symptoms vary so widely across people, and potentially identify where outbreaks are starting. Further, scientists at the University ofOxford have rolled out an app that allows people to trace who they have been in contact with, and warns people if any of their contacts has been tested positive for the corona virus so that they can decide to self-isolate.

Because smartphones save information about a user's location through their GPS history, many have argued that the widespread use of smartphones provides a unique opportunity for more effective contact tracing. In the U.S., the government is discussing the possibility of using GPS and movement data from Americans’ smartphones with the help of big tech companies to combat the coronavirus. 

However, the use of these apps is not without significant risks: critics say that this could lead to increased government surveillance even after the pandemic is over, at the cost of the public’s privacy. Ideally, this data should be encrypted and not be shared with third parties, but questions have been raised by privacy experts on how governments save and use this data. Thus, there is an important need for dialogue about the ethics of contact tracing by smartphones, and there is a crucial role for cybersecurity experts to weigh-in during this pandemic. Finally, for these apps to be effective in the first place, enough people need to use them. 

3. Mobile apps could help to distribute reliable information

Recently, in the United Kingdom, the National Health Service (NHS; the publicly funded healthcare system) started  working with tech companies to provide the public with accurate information about COVID-19. Further, Singapore has been utilizing websites and social messaging platforms on a daily basis to keep the population informed and advised about what to do to reduce the risk of infection. Similarly, doctors and health institutions could make use of social media and text-messaging to provide accurate information to their patients and the public.

However, social media platforms are notorious for spreading misinformation and ‘fake news’. Large social media platforms are reportedly taking steps to remove false content or conspiracy theories about the pandemic using artificial intelligence, and distribute reliable information, such as developed by the World Health Organization. However, because of the overload of information on social media, that misinformation might spread too fast for these algorithms. After all, false news may spread more rapidly than factual information on social media platforms. 

In conclusion, our personal digital devices, combined with rigorous data science, are of crucial importance during this COVID-19 pandemic. Though potentially revolutionary, the way that digital technology can be used during this pandemic also comes with many challenges and risks. Thus, we must be critical and think about how we can ensure that this technology will truly benefit our society in this time of crisis.