Digital in the Time of the Coronavirus: Data Science and Technology as a Force for Inclusion

Crises do not create inequity and fault lines in society, they expose them. The systems and structures that give rise to inequality and inequity are deep-rooted and powerful. In recent months, we have seen the coronavirus bring into high relief many social and economic vulnerabilities across the world. It is now clear that Hispanics and Blacks are even more vulnerable to Covid-19 because of underlying health conditions, more frequent exposure to the virus, and broken social safety nets. This trend will only accelerate as the virus gains a foothold in Africa, parts of Asia, and Latin America.

The impact of the virus in places where health systems are weak, poverty is high, and large numbers of people are immunocompromised could be devastating. How do we mitigate the medium-term and second-order effects of a pandemic that will shrink economic growth and exacerbate inequality? This year alone, more than 500 million people are expected to fall into poverty, mostly in Africa and Asia. To defeat a virus that does not respect geographic boundaries, it is urgent for public and private actors, philanthropies, and global development institutions to use every tool available to alleviate a global humanitarian emergency and attendant economic collapse.

Technology, data science, and digital readiness are crucial elements for an effective emergency response and foundational to sustain a long-term recovery. Already, scientists and researchers across the world are leveraging data and digital platforms to accelerate the development of a vaccine, fast-track clinical trials, and contact tracing using mobile-enabled tools. Sensors are collecting huge amounts of data, and machine learning algorithms are helping policymakers decide when to relax physical distancing and where to open the economy and for how long.

Access to reliable information for decisionmaking, however, is not evenly spread. High frequency, granular, and anonymized datasets are essential for public-health officials and community health workers to target interventions and reach vulnerable populations faster and at a lower cost. Equipped with reliable data, civic technologists can leverage tools like artificial intelligence and machine learning to flatten the curve of Covid-19 and also the curve of inequity and unequal access to services and support.

This will not happen on its own. Preventing a much deeper digital divide will require forward-leaning policymakers, far-sighted investors and grant makers, civic-minded tech innovators and businesses, and a robust, digitally savvy civil society to work collaboratively for social and economic inclusion. It will require political will and improved data governance to deploy digital platforms to serve populations furthest behind. It is in our collective interest to ensure the health and well-being of every segment of society. Digital inclusion is part of the solution.

There are certain pathways public, private and social actors can follow to leverage data science, digital tools, and platforms today.

  1. Build better, smarter infrastructure. Universal access to high speed connectivity, hardware, and reliable electricity are foundational for effective emergency response and longer-term economic growth. The Alliance for Affordable Internet, a global coalition working toward universal, affordable internet access, is already prioritizing connectivity in the developing world. Still, 80 percent of people in sub-Saharan Africa lack internet access, and nearly 90 percent do not have access to a computer.

    Electricity is a precondition to participate in a digital and service-based economy. Power Africa has made impressive strides in addressing this gap, but bilateral and multilateral institutions should continue to support governments in building this foundational infrastructure. Because the cost of renewable energy is falling, building greener grids and investing in lower-carbon alternatives is now achievable.

    Access to digital infrastructure, however, is not sufficient for digital inclusion. Platforms do not create value without trained users. The very people who would gain most from access to telehealth and distance learning are often not equipped to take advantage of these platforms. Investing in capacity building for teachers, parents and students, patients and health workers, civil society, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) should happen alongside investments in infrastructure.

  2. Invest in testing, preparedness and health systems. Early testing and contact tracing remain the best options to stall the spread of the disease in areas where it has not yet ravaged populations and economies. Rapid, low-cost, and self-administered testing has proven to be a challenge. The technology to produce more reliable tests and faster results is needed everywhere. Lessons learned from East Asia and Europe are yet to be distilled. Tests for antibodies, essential for relaxing social distancing and reopening economies need to be more accurate and then scaled up. Testing is an area ripe for disruptive innovation.

    Once test results are known, governments can use artificial intelligence to selectively isolate vulnerable groups rather than deploy the blunt instrument of mass physical distancing. Building longer-term resilience will require vastly improved public-health systems. This will require investments in early warning systems, data collection, and advanced analytics. It will also require investments in telehealth and capacity building of community health workers and NGOs alongside doctors and nurses. Tools like 3D printing can help build local supply chains for essential supplies such as medical equipment.

    Once vaccines and therapeutics come online, advanced market commitments similar to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and the Global Fund can incentivize biotech and pharmaceutical companies to ramp up production to ensure supply is sufficient to meet global demand. 

  3. Deploy data science for decisionmaking. Access to high-frequency, sub-national, granular, and anonymized data sets is essential for better decisionmaking during emergencies and after. Without timely and reliable data, computing power, and analytical capacity, decisionmakers are unable to respond quickly and direct scarce resources where they are needed most. Understanding data gaps and data bias is no less important. With limited data for example, we don’t know the total number of Covid-19 infections in a given population, size of the vulnerable population, rate of transmission, and the demography of those most affected. Data gaps cost lives, and sound public policy requires better data governance and timely, reliable, and actionable information.

    Networks of computers and sensors built for business, communication, and security can help coordinate a rapid response to a degree unimaginable even a few years ago. The creation of a digital data commons and regulations allowing for reuse of information is an important step to ensure the right people have access to the right information at the right time.

    Better decisionmaking, however, requires more than data access. Senior public and private leaders should commit to evidence-driven policy. And it is not enough to know what the right thing to do is. Informed action must follow. Policy decisions should include subject matter experts, social scientists, and data scientists. Capacity to use data and technology responsibly should be part of every civil servants’ skill set. Digital literacy among NGOs and civil society is essential to hold public and private institutions accountable to develop fair and equitable policies. Investing in people and institutions is no less important than investing in data and technology.

  4. Address surveillance technologies and privacy risks. Privacy considerations need to be addressed proactively when collecting, sharing, and analyzing data. The wide use of surveillance technologies presents numerous risks to individual privacy and social cohesion. While there may be good reasons to employ geo-data for contract tracing, data privacy, security, and ethics considerations need to be managed proactively.

    The private sector is already working with governments on matters of cybersecurity and digital surveillance. Multi-stakeholder alliances anchored by civil society should step up to ensure the broader interests of society are foremost in mind when employing surveillance technologies.

  5. Control and contain the “infodemic” and strengthen pluralism. The spread of disinformation is an enormous risk that must be contained. Governments and civil society should work with technology companies to stop the spread of false and unverifiable information. While not easy to do given the vast volume of data generated every second, machine learning can analyze very large data sets, identify and anticipate patterns, and flag information that contains hate speech and invokes violence. The rate at which these tools “learn and get smarter” is unprecedented and can be leveraged globally to save lives and prevent the targeting of minorities groups during an emergency.

    Social cohesion is at risk when people consume fewer sources of information and sources that reinforce their views. Against the backdrop of growing populism and declining trust in institutions, narrowbanding can lead to social unrest and violence. Digital platforms that enable a diversity of voices to be heard is a precondition for a healthy, vibrant, and pluralistic society.

  6. Invest in digital readiness and earning. We have seen that workers and students who are digitally literate and have access to digital platforms fare much better during a health emergency. They are able to continue earning and learning. But more than 1 billion students still lack access to the internet and a computer. Mobile devices can help bridge this gap and tools such as natural language processing in a variety of languages to improve learning outcomes.

    As jobs are increasingly powered by technology platforms, investing in digital readiness and upskilling is a public good. Learners of all ages need basic digital skills to compete for decent paying work and participate in a twenty-first century economy. The future of work will look very different from today’s offices, farms, and factory floors. Just as the personal computer and smartphone transformed the way we work, live, and communicate, technologies like virtual reality, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and the internet of things will transform the way we live, learn, and earn a living.

  7. Protect small enterprises and nonprofits. Micro, small, and medium enterprises employ millions of people across the world. A lack of cash flow will severely constrain their ability to provide essential goods and services and keep people employed. Nonprofits and the informal sector provide essential services to people missed by governments and businesses. Without immediate and targeted assistance, many of these institutions will collapse and destroy the economic base and social fabric of many societies.

    Artificial intelligence and fintech can expedite cash transfers to people, businesses, and NGOs to ensure that funds reach those most in need. Transaction histories create pathways to credit for millions of informal businesses. Millions of Americans and tens of millions of others don’t have bank accounts or access to financial products to smooth out the effects of economic shocks. Financial inclusion of marginalized groups, particularly women, will be essential to help marginal communities cope. Lessons learned in the developing world can be adapted to serve the underserved everywhere.

    Many of the poorest people in the world are smallholder farmers. More than 500 million are impacted by climate and supply chain disruptions. High-resolution satellite imagery, remote sensing, and machine learning can help farmers decide where to plant, when to water, and when to apply fertilizer and pesticides to maximize yields. Precision agriculture is a powerful example of how to increase productivity and protect farmers from more frequent natural disasters and dwindling natural resources. 

  8. Create stronger safety nets. Fewer businesses, lost jobs, and ailing nonprofits may create a hunger and poverty pandemic that far exceeds the immediate health crisis. The World Food Programme (WFP) currently distributes food to more than 100 million refugees, internally displaced people, and populations living in extreme poverty. Thirty million of those people rely solely on the WFP for food. If these people do not receive timely assistance during Covid-19, 300,000 people could die each day of hunger. We need resources now to avert this humanitarian catastrophe.

    Additionally, 1 billion people cannot access basic services such as food assistance, cash transfers, and health insurance because they cannot authenticate their identities. Under the right conditions, digital IDs and distributed ledgers can help vulnerable groups gain access to public assistance and cash transfers reliably and quickly. We have seen how fast governments, multilaterals institutions, and philanthropists can move during an emergency. The societal cost of not investing in safety nets to confront slower burning crises like hunger, climate change, and poverty is simply too high.

Crises give us permission to rethink, reset priorities, and repair broken systems. Our goal should be to build more resilient communities, institutions, and societies. Data science, technology, and digital platforms, properly directed, can be trampolines for more inclusive societies and economies. Governments, philanthropies, corporates, and development institutions must rise to the challenge now.

While piecemeal interventions exist, they lack coherence and leave gaps unfilled. We have an opportunity to amplify impact in the ecosystem, identify gaps, and support organizations operating at sub-scale. Through a build, fund, and grow model, catalytic philanthropy can crowd in public and private partners, fill gaps in the ecosystem, and scale up the impact of data science, innovation, and technology for social impact.

Aleem Walji is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2020 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Aleem Walji

Aleem Walji

Former Senior Associate (Non-resident), Project on Prosperity and Development