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Humans, not technology, are getting us through this pandemic

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Technology’s failure to come up with a quick solution to Covid-19 reveals how organisations all over the world are nowhere near as digitally advanced as they thought they were.

Not a single person alive was prepared for what 2020 has brought. Yet, while we may not have been able to predict coronavirus, we live in the Information Age. Humanity has the ability to collect, analyse and act upon masses of data – we’ve even sent people to the Moon as a result.

Over a hundred years on from the greatest pandemic on record - the Spanish Flu of 1918 - many would have expected modern society to control the spread of Covid-19 with far greater ease and expertise. After all, we had tech on our side.

However, tech has not always worked in the way we wanted it to, the most recent example being when the use of an ill-suited version of Excel to store data within the UK track-and-trace system resulted in 16,000 coronavirus case records being temporarily lost.

The truth is, these failures are part of a much larger societal catastrophe: technology has been a damp squib in the fight against coronavirus.

We’ve got so used to technology solving most of our problems – GPS finding where we should be; Google finding us the answers; Tinder finding us a date – that the expectations weighing on technology’s role in handling the Covid-19 crisis were heavy and palpable.

But no, the machines haven’t saved us. The robots didn’t take care of the sick. The algorithms didn’t help the most vulnerable. The solutions have been human and, in many ways, basic.

To avoid getting sick, we’ve been staying at home. To avoid getting sick, we’ve been keeping two metres away from each other. To avoid getting sick, we’ve been avoiding public transport. To avoid getting sick, we’ve been wearing masks. To avoid getting sick, we’ve been washing our hands.

True, the greatest experiment in working from home of all time has turned out better than most of us expected. True, the internet providers have been able to cope with huge demands from an army of remote workers. True, streaming services have saved many of us from boredom.

However, the UK’s Excel spreadsheet failure proves that we haven’t yet been able to understand and control complex technology on a scale that will keep us all safe. Those who have been in control of our welfare during the pandemic live down our street: healthcare professionals; delivery drivers; supermarket personnel; the emergency services. The reliable, resilient and relentless drive to keep the country going has come not from machines but people.

Technology has long been a defining companion of the human species. Yet, the harsh truth is that however much we may vouch for the latest iPhone or converse with Alexa, the technological maturity of most of society is childlike at best. The Excel failure is a case in point. Heritage technologies have had their day, and new, capable analytical solutions have been lined up to take over. Whether due to expense, a lack of urgency or plain old fear of the unknown, these technologies weren’t in place or being properly deployed when they were needed.

Where does that leave data scientists? What about the academics, engineers and IT specialists? Where have we all been during this pandemic?

Here’s the truth: technology is able to help us fight off challenges as big and global as a health emergency. The technology is there: the artificial intelligence and the machine learning; the analytical tools; the scientists and engineers. There are pockets of expertise to be found all over the globe. The best scientific minds have been working on potential solutions and the work they have done has been nothing short of remarkable.

The issue is that advanced technologies at our disposal have not been deployed well – if at all. It’s not worth seeking blame for the Excel spreadsheet oversight or the faltering track-and-trace app. The issue lies with all of us who believe that by living through the Information Age we have an inherent understanding of technology. Far from it. The global technological, scientific and business communities must collaborate with one another to help us all become more technically minded. End users must seek out better solutions for day-to-day problems and we must all agree that a fragmented, siloed approach to global issues makes us all the poorer.

For this to happen there needs to be better deployment of the already available (and highly capable) technology at a national and even organisational level. We know that more than half of all analytical models don’t make it into production. For many more organisations, like some areas of the British Government, the implementation of these technologies was too slow. The need for digital transformation is inherent as we become more and more complex as a society – better, fairer decisions must be made quicker, based on reliable and complete data. All over the world, organisations are realising that they’re nowhere near as digitally advanced as they thought they were.

Humans have proven themselves during this pandemic, from working overtime on hospital wards to teaching via webcam. These humans deserve to have the global technological, scientific and business communities beside them, supplying them with the right technologies, or loan decisions, or safety equipment to sustain their incredible response. Data analytics is fully capable of this. It’s up to us all to make it work for us all.

Dr Iain Brown is head of data science at SAS UK & Ireland

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