It’s only natural that the biggest tech companies, including Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft, are stepping up as well, not only by donating to Covid-19 relief efforts, but also by harnessing their unique ability to rapidly solve problems and scale solutions. In the pandemic, the commitment to apply technology solutions to societal problems can help save lives and restore the economy, if it is channeled into the right solutions. That means these tech titans should focus on their expertise and share what they know. They should provide solutions that support our existing public health infrastructure. And most fundamentally, they should know when not to step up, sometimes resisting the temptation to help in order to follow that age-old promise in the Hippocratic oath, do no harm — especially to the public trust that is crucial for effective response to the pandemic.
Crises can provide fertile soil for a bias toward action, even when an action isn’t needed. In a global pandemic, that bias often takes the form of an overreaction of surveillance. Ideas such as using apps for proximity-based automated contact tracing, as attempted in China and South Korea, and as Google and Apple have begun to explore, make assumptions about uptake and accuracy that are implausible. Worse, to make them more feasible could mean making participation hidden or coercive, threatening the very trust that an effective and democratic public health system needs. We’ve learned that lesson of surveillance too many times in the post-9/11 world. Proximity-based tracing applications may have some role supporting comprehensive contact tracing programs in the future, but only if they avoid over-promising, address privacy and feasibility barriers, and demonstrate accuracy and value.
What tech companies can do is navigate the waters they know and focus on what they do best. Facebook, Twitter and Google, for example, have become not just ways to stay connected to people — especially important in the midst of physical isolation — but also places people turn to for information. That’s why we were pleased to see these companies quickly elevate information from trusted sources to the top of news feeds and search pages, and for YouTube to aggressively take down harmful misinformation. Pinterest, Apple and others have released apps that facilitate health education and self assessment. There is still room for improvement, but these have been promising steps.
For the next steps, tech companies can help by telling us what they’ve learned. The expertise tech companies bring to the fight against Covid-19 is powered by data insights that could be transformational if opened to the public. Google and Facebook, for example, recently announced their work to make Community Mobility Reports and a Mobility Dashboard available to the public, providing de-identified, aggregate data on how communities are responding to shelter-at-home orders and physical distancing. Big tech is learning more and benefits us all by sharing what it knows freely and publicly.
These companies can also help by empowering us to do our jobs better. Not by creating something new, but by empowering the people who have been doing this work for decades. Carnegie Mellon University’s Delphi epidemiological research center worked to develop a way to forecast where Covid-19 may hit next. They searched for a survey tool broad enough to launch their new symptom mapping project and found a partner in Facebook, which opened the survey to users of its platform. With this massive community of users, these epidemiologists were able to connect with a wealth of information that can inform our responses on the front lines and help us prepare for and possibly prevent future outbreaks. As epidemiologists, we are enthusiastic about this new data feed. It has the potential to serve as a crucial early warning system that can help save lives and preserve economic activity.
One of our most important public health activities moving forward will be contact tracing. Apple, Google and Microsoft can contribute by helping public health workers do their job more effectively. Partnerships between our public health experts and our nation’s leading technologists can be transformational in ways that will continue improving our health long after Covid-19 is no longer the emergency it is today.
We are at a unique moment in human history, but not just because of this pandemic. Outbreaks of disease have left their scars throughout history. What makes this time unique is that we have, at our fingertips, a wealth of information, data and insights that would have been unimaginable in pandemics of the past. If we and the companies that hold this data use it well by building on expertise, sharing de-identified data widely, supporting public health and focusing on doing no harm, we can turn a new chapter in how humanity fights these invisible viral enemies with more interconnected human intelligence.