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Technology is just part of the solution.

Photo by Carl Heyerdahl on Unsplash

The global situation around COVID-19 has brought forth several approaches to addressing the challenges. A significant aspect of these approaches is the emergence of technology-centric design which is intended to provide a cogent response to the crises. Almost all solutions being discussed and implemented address the near term issues. To be able to create and design durable solutions, we need an inclusive approach. It is not just about science and technology — it is about the way to pull together a comprehensive set of experts who can view the problem in its entirety.

A defining feature of open source software development models is the ability to work transparently, thus enabling others to collaborate and bring about improvements. Intervention approaches for COVID-19 need to adapt and learn from the success of open-source models and allow a similar inclusive nature of participation. While governments and nations are required to reform policy in order to solve issues local to them, the scale of global collaboration needed makes it impossible to work in isolation and attempt to strike out an independent path. Across the globe, almost all countries are working on a pattern that has been known to work — testing, isolation, tracing and treatment.

The pharmaceutical industry has been focused on creating better and more efficient ways to identify and test. At the scale which is required — focusing sharply on low cost but high efficacy is something that would help poorer countries. A large number of industry bodies, expert panels and startups have converged to work on the tracing aspect — by designing and discussing technology interventions and enabling this to be efficient. As a result, there has been an ongoing discussion around the trade-off between privacy and being able to contain the pandemic. It is a given that any methods and approaches adopted during these times are going to be around for the foreseeable future. Technology choices that attempt to undercut hard-fought privacy positions will need to be reviewed and shown as coming up short.

All approaches which aim to deliver an outcome around addressing challenges posed by COVID-19 have to focus on three key questions:

Does it include a diverse set of expertise that can mitigate fallouts from unintended consequences and unanticipated results?

Does it have a governance framework that enables a clear formulation of the focus areas and future improvements?

Does it characterize the go-to-market approach which addresses the “public good” aspect of policy making?

The quick adoption of technology creates an unequal distribution of power within society. And this power divide has been the focus on studies around the social theory. In times of a pandemic, the raison d’etre of technology is to serve humankind. That is the only sustainable narrative. The success of innovations in technology and interventions in the social order would need to be measured with the idea that “technology is society made durable” (Latour, B. (1990). Technology is Society Made Durable. The Sociological Review38(1_suppl), 103–131. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-954X.1990.tb03350.x). To that extent, more humanist approaches to technology driven stories require the involvement of disciplines outside of just computer science and engineering. The information technology revolution has often made the terrible mistake of thinking it can model our real lives through algorithms and drive decisions based on pre-programmed information. This approach to knowledge has often fallen short and sometimes with catastrophic consequences. Now is not the time for undertaking such approaches at scale. Algorithms often manifest the inherent bias and prejudices of the programmers and by extension, the society and culture in which they are immersed. Expert systems require expertise to be encoded as part of routines. And this is where a coalition based approach is well positioned to be the better one. As civic activists work together with public health experts and emergency responders, it is needed for programmers to make it possible to deliver services in an efficient and scalable manner. That would be the correct role of technology infrastructure in these times.

Technology can create a positive impact, as long as it includes human values.

The critical challenge before policy makers is about devising ways that focus on containing the fallout from the pandemic while ensuring that national interests are aligned on the road to recovery. Participating in the humanitarian approaches to intervention is no longer limited to caregiving or, ensuring that human dignity is taken care of. It is about creating enduring ways to safeguard human rights and continue to push forward on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). There are emerging concerns about how the SDGs are going to be impacted as a result of the pandemic. Without long term policies around shoring up the SDGs, there is a real danger of nations failing to take care of their citizens. Times of chaos is often when more authoritarian approaches to governance come to the forefront. Extensive surveillance and monitoring systems that exhort citizens to cede given the greater national good are commonplace. The nature of experiments with new technology is that it is seductive, its impact is too vague to be measured, and the immediate gains are always more than long term impacts. An open, transparent and collaborative approach based on diversity, inclusion, and clarity of focus is often the best bet against the unrestrained fetishism of innovation.