🦠 COVID-19 | Time to think tech dependencies | 🤕 1,934,125 | Deaths 120,437
I am a scientist by education, banker at JPMorgan for a few years, then mature PhD student in Chemical Biology at Oxford under the supervision of Christofer Schofield (FRS) and Peter Ratcliffe (Nobel laureate in medicine in 2019). Founder and tech investor focusing on media and education. I care about science, learning and Democracy which are good bedfellows.
📊 Daily Data Brief:
1,934,125 cumulative cases (+71,871)
Active cases: 1,357,089 (+41,481) (this is the number of currently infected patients)
Total Deaths: 120,437 (+5,457)
Serious/Critical Cases: 51,140 (+256)
Recovered: 456,599 (+24,933)
Death curves (updated daily as ECDC releases). Major update with per country graphs now available (Link)
We are living humbling times which have definitely exposed fragilities in our socio-economic models and dependencies.
While we are increasingly becoming aware that we should rethink our supply chains and move towards more distributed supply networks with regards to manufacturing the thinking has not yet reached technology. It seems that the tech backlash has subsided and yet from infodemics to tech giants controlling 99.29% or so of the operating systems of mobile phone announcing a partnership on Bluetooth contact-tracing, nothing has been solved. Quite the opposite.
It is not hard to see how the “surveillance” needed to test, trace and isolate is a heavenly match for the surveillance at scale capability of technology. As I have argued before though, technology is not good or bad, but scale technology funded by advertising revenues possesses some inevitable and worrisome traits. Apple being predominantly a hardware company has been able and willing to take a stronger stance on privacy and it should be lauded for doing so. It is partly this stance which undoubtedly motivated Apple to announce its partnership with Google on COVID-19 contact-tracing technology. When tech based contact-tracing re-emerged as an important solution with COVID19 (epidemiologist Larry Brilliant first suggested its use in 2006 and Bill Gates in 2015), I had two questions: 1) will Big Tech launch their own contact-tracing apps and 2) should governments be the right entity to launch such apps.
Even though (or maybe because) the tech backlash was subsiding, I believed then that a Big Tech company launching its own app would be a double edged sword as in itself it could re-ignite the techlash by ostensibly exposing the power of their surveillance machinery. They definitely had the scale and ability but it was better not to expose it publicly. This was however only one of the issue for them to consider. If one of them would have launched its own global app, how would it interface with governments? How would it treat data requests or feature request from a government wanting to better control the epidemic for public health reasons? What stance would the Big Tech app owner take when these requests inevitably surface.
The second question was one which did not have a global answer. As we can already see, from China to the U.K. there is a whole spectrum when it comes to centralised identities in a broad sense of the term. Identities as in the aggregate attributes that constitute who you are, with the humanist view that not all of them and their interplay can fit into a smart chip. The U.K. and the U.S. for example have both resisted centralised national identities whilst China has gone as far as giving its citizens a social credit score. The US and the UK have nonetheless both instituted credit bureaus assigning credit score to all their citizens. Even though France has a national identity card, the constitutional court blocked the establishment of a limited credit bureau in 2015 So identity is a cultural and national matter with a lot of idiosyncrasies. Even though we live in an interconnected world and the virus knows no border, it is not difficult to understand why COVID19 tracing apps have been deemed rightly or wrongly a national matter. It did not need to be, but the State always feel that surveillance is their business and Google/Apple have acquiesced and supported that prerogative by making its Bluetooth technology only available to governments and governmental health agencies. It is easy to see why as they are regulated by these same governments that they are now so willingly serving. A perfect example of the surveillance nexus Shoshana Zuboff described in her book “The age of surveillance capitalism”.
So Apple and Google did not do their own app, but decided instead to be the servient technology enablers of government epidemiology surveillance. It is a Faustian pact and it is actually not clear who is on what side in this. What will Apple or Google decide to do when a government or governmental health agency decides to submit an app on their app store with an embedded backdoor to the government or a privacy design which does not hold up to Apple’s standard. Will Apple or Google block it or acquiesce? How transparent will the app code base be? Will governments claim for security reasons that they cannot fully open source it? What if a government decides not not use the Privacy by Design standard which Apple and Google so generously provided? Will citizens be told or will Apple as the supranational privacy enforcer (the newly created but not elected World Privacy Organisation) disclose it or block the app.
This contact tracing example just serves to show the enormous power that two firms owning the OS space wield on governments and citizens around the world. And if it is deemed benevolent now there is no guarantee that the CEO or Board of directors of these companies will act as such in the future. As I wrote above, identity and surveillance are shaped by the culture and history of countries. Europe with its experience of the Holocaust has a deeply different take on privacy than the US. Historically and more recently with GDPR, Europe has been and continues to be a leader in privacy and data protection. Its subordination (and that of its Member States) in implementing contact-tracing to two American headquartered firms is problematic. The mobile operating system supply chain (or 99.29% of it) is in the hands of two American providers. The same way we are rethinking our manufacturing supply chains, and looking to diversify them into a more diverse and fragmented supply network, countries should do the same for their tech supply chains. The chains appear bigger but the skillset to do another operating system exist in Europe.
You can be sure that after the Huawei controversy, Chinese engineers are working hard on an alternative to Android. Why wouldn’t Europe and its engineers do the same. France has recently announced €4 billion aid to support its startups, and in doing so allow France to retain an important skillset for its future. Questions on deployment of those funds need to be asked as it is taxpayer money. Should it fund bailing out another adtech, gig-economy platform or a business soon to be bankrupt, or rather help to build a tech infrastructure of strategic importance for the nation? Should it be contributed instead to a pan-European project which would motivate and attract the best tech talent and help regain tech sovereignty? Should European governments satisfy themselves with American companies creating jobs in Europe or should they actually look to create jobs by supporting the creation and staffing of non-American champions powering a new tech paradigm more aligned with they values. Why could Europe create EADS to rival Boeing and now appear only able to sell out its talent and its tech sovereignty to foreign champions? Is COVID19 the last nail in the coffin or the opportunity to water the nascent and promising sprout?
We are now also hearing that immunity certificates are coming in a number of European countries. This is an even more sensitive topic. Should we start the debate now that we have time or wait for Apple ID to power a future immunity certificates around the world?
Time to think technological dependencies.
Article and Video of the day: Robert Redfield (US Center for Disease Control and Prevention) says “Antibody tests need to be in place for 2nd coronavirus wave, CDC director says” in NBC interview. (Link)
Some key take-aways from the interview:
On Protective immunity:
“I think it's important to emphasize that we haven't yet proven that once you develop antibodies, [you develop protective immunity]. It's still a scientific hypothesis that this virus will lead to protective immunity of some duration.”
On availability of anti-body tests:
“I think the availability of the test for antibodies will become quite available.
There will be employers that will want to have some knowledge, as they plan for 2021. It's definitely going to be aggressively employed in public health so we can do public health planning.”
Well worth a watch or read.
🏛 Matthew Herper writes “U.S. is ‘less safe’ from coronavirus when CDC goes quiet, former director says” in STAT news. Robert Redfield must feel relieved that he gave an interview the same day his predecessor at the CDC was talking about the deafening silence of the CDC. STAT has been repeatedly reporting on this issue noting than Nancy Messonnier, director of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, un-heeded warning on January 26 to treat COVID19 seems to have resulted in her and her agency being silence or at least taking a back seat.
The recommendation for the US and the rest of the world to put the virus in a “box” is well known and four-pronged:
“That box, he said, has four corners: widespread diagnostic testing to detect the virus; the ability to safely isolate all infected people; the ability to find all people who have been exposed; and quarantining those exposed people.
If any one of those four sides is weak, the virus will escape, will get out, and will spread widely in society. That’s why right now, as we’re sheltering in place, we need to be urgently preparing for the next phase of the battle.”
Frieden warns about the large human staffing needed for physical tracing of patients, the current poor quality of testing resulting in a number of false positives and negatives. He also questions the magnitude of contribution of tech enabled contact-tracing versus the more traditional and tried-and-tested physical methods.
The full interview between Tom Frieden (former CDC Director and now the president and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives) and Helen Branswell is at the end of the article as well. Read or watch.(Link)
䷆ Maggie Fox writes “‘We need an army’: Hiring of coronavirus trackers seen as key to curbing disease spread” for STAT news. Echoing Tom Frieden interview above, Fox looks at the human intensity of contact tracing.
There is a quote from George Rutherford, UCSF’s head of disease and global epidemiology outlining the scale of what is needed:
“We are providing the people to make phone calls, we are working on standard scripts, we are working on IT solutions, training, and we are fielding teams of contact tracers”
It also cites Tom Frieden (former CDC director) saying that “We need an army of 300,000 people”. The scale of what is needed somewhat dampens the lack of his optimism for tech helping in this effort.
A very informative read on what is needed going forward. (Link)
🧪 David Li writes “The next coronavirus testing debacle” for Politico. Testing fiasco around the world seem to be a recurring theme. As we move to a new type of testing - serological testing, we are starting to see a number of journalist/experts warning of the same problems we faced with the ramp-up of RT-PCR testing. This is what Li warns and focuses on, in this article. Li walks us through four important questions:
“1. How do the tests work, and what can they tell us?
2. What’s the government doing to ensure the tests are accurate?
3. Will widespread antibody testing be available soon?
4. Could the tests help the U.S. ease social distancing measures?”
Asking the important questions that federal leadership needs to be in a posittion to answer convincingly to successfully lead the next phase of the pandemic. (Link)
🚚 Dave Lawler writes “How the coronavirus is disrupting the global food supply” for Axios. The article looks at how lockdowns are disrupting the human staffing of the food supply chain leading potentially to wasted food and if not managed properly shortages. John Crisci, supply chain director at the UN World Food Program told Axios:
“There is enough food, but food and other essential commodities must keep moving. We cannot let this health crisis turn into a food crisis.”
🚴♀️ Kia Kokalitcheva writes “Uber updates its coronavirus compensation policy for drivers” for Axios. One of the regulatory arbitrage that gig-economy companies were exploiting by not treating their workers as employees is being challenged in the pandemic. Uber had to review its sick pay leave policy for its workers. The big question is what will happen to gig-economy companies post pandemic with regards to their worker protection policies and ultimately their bottom line. (Link)
📊 A picture is worth a thousand words: Global (🌎) and local (with relevant flag) visualisation and forecasting tool
🌍 MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis started to publish weekly death estimates for countries (Link)
🇺🇸 The US Center for Disease Control and Surveillance (CDC) publishes “A Weekly Surveillance Summary of U.S. COVID-19 Activity” (Link)
Google has published a new website to “See how your community is moving around differently due to COVID-19”. They have a lot of data to do so… (Link)
🌎The Financial Times has a data tracking page which is in front of the paywall, looking at cases and fatality curves for selective countries and metropolitan areas/region. It is not as extensive as the Madlag link below, where you can see static as well as animated images for a greater number of individual countries. (Link)
🇺🇸/🌍The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) is an independent global health research center at the University of Washington (UW). It has put out a simulation for the US (overall and by state) of what is the expected shortfall in health capacity (bed, ICU, ventilators) and when is the expected peak of the epidemic for each state. It has now added countries in the European Economic Area (EEA). A valuable resource. (Link)
🇺🇸Another valuable resource by Unacast ( a data company providing human mobility insights). Their “Social distancing scoreboard looks and compares (State by State and County by County), the change in mobility to prior to COVID19 (Link)
🌎 Country by Country Curves: This is a GitHub made by my friend Francois Lagunas. He has written a script to scrape deaths and number of cases in order to visualise the rate of growth on a logarithmic scale. Great resource (Link)
CityMapper has started to produce City Mobility Index to show how much a City is moving. This is a very good indicator of how well lockdowns are respected around the world: Barcelona (4% of city moving) at one end and St Petersburg at the other end (68% of city moving) for yesterday (Link)
🌎A great resource put together by Ben Kuhn and Yuri Vishnevsky. At a time when we need solidarity and cooperation, I prefer their subtitle “We need stronger measures, much faster” than their title. It’s a simulator on what case growth looks like depending on your community’s measures. Fantastic resource to stir communities and governments to action (Link)
🇩🇪 The COVID19 dashboard for Germany is one of the best around. (Link)
🌎A helpful guide by VOX of the “9 coronavirus pandemic charts everyone should see” (Link)
🌎Data and chart regularly updated by the Centre for the Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. It maps the effective reproduction number (also known as R0) of COVID19. You want to get it below 1 as fast as possible to contain an epidemic. (Link to see charts and more data about your country)
🌎This is a great COVID19 Dashboard prepared by Andrzej Leszkiewicz. Andrzej has also written an introductory and explanatory blog for it (“Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) fatality rate: WHO and media vs logic and mathematics”). I particularly like the country comparison tab, which allows you to track and benchmark the curve of the epidemic (number of cases and deaths) in your country with that of another. Very well done and informative. (Link)
“Going Critical” by Kevin Simler is a detailed interacting essay talking about complex systems, the importance of understanding networks, modelling and how this applies to: memes, infectious diseases, herd immunity, wildfire, neutrons and culture. Must read (Link)
🇸🇬/🌎 Singapore remains the gold standard of dashboard. Here is an article with the Best and Worst of all dashboard in the world, with Pros and Cons prepared by Neel V. Patel for MIT Technology (Article)
🏛 Notable tracking projects
💊“COVID-19 treatment and vaccine tracker”. This tracker contains an aggregation of publicly-available information from validated sourcesby the Milken Institute (Link)
🏛Tariq Krim has started a COVID19 website tracking data about each government policy response to the pandemic (Link)
🏛Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker (OxCGRT) was launched yesterday. Data is collected from public sources by a team of dozens of Oxford University students and staff from every part of the world. It also looks at stringency of the measures and plots stringency with case curves. A great initiative and resource (Link)
👩💻Mike Butcher (Editor at Large Techcrunch and founder of TechforUK), had refocused TechforUK on the fight against COVID19. It is a very effective hands-on team of volunteer. Do reach out to them. He has also teamed up with We are now working closely with the volunteers behind the “Coronavirus Tech Handbook”. (They are ‘cousins’ of ours who originally created the Electiontechhandbook). Volunteer collaboration at its best! (Link)
📰 Cronycle resource:
Cronycle has made available a number of open-access feeds on its website which I extensively use for the Corona Daily. The four first feeds are:
1. COVID-19 General (Link)
2. COVID-19 x Resilience (Link)
3. COVID-19 x HCQ/CQ (Link) (HydroxyChloroquine and Chloroquine)
4. Gig Economy x COVID-19 (Link)
And I have added a new feed below
5. Supply Chain x COVID-19 (Link)
I will write more in the future on how you can leverage Cronycle for keeping up to date in between two editions of this newsletter. (Link)
Here is a blog post from Valerie Pegon at Cronycle: “Grow knowledge about Covid-19, not anxiety!” (Link)
🎬 The Grant Sanderson permanent video corner:
Exponential growth and epidemics
This is an excellent video explaining “exponential growth” and epidemics. Although we are all familiar with the phrase, its authors rightly says that “yet human intuition has a hard time recognising what it means”. This is a ❗️MUST WATCH❗️to understand fully what is upon us but also how early behavioural changes at scale can have a massive impact on the level of exponential growth of COVID19 (Link)
“Simulating an Epidemic”
This is the second video by Grant Sanderson looking at simulating an epidemic under different physical distancing measures. (Link)
Thank you for the great work! I'd love to translate part of your last issue that echoes rising concerns here in France about technology supply chains and our (European) reliance on two US firms for mobile operating systems. Would you allow me to do so? (with due references and backlinks of course).
A couple of observations from a UK perspective...
1. I'm sure anyone in the UK would be amazed that creating an "army" of 300,000 people to undertake contact tracing would be considered to be difficult. Out government recently put out a call for unpaid volunteers to help the health service (primarily with admin, deliveries, etc.) and got 500,000 volunteers signing up within 24 hours. The USA has 5x the UK's population and >10 million people out of work. Surely it would be easy?
2. Not a critical point to your argument about identity and privacy, but it's simply not correct to say that "The UK [has] nonetheless instituted credit bureaus assigning credit score to all their citizens." There are private companies which compile credit reports for individuals using a variety of sources, and they all tout your "credit score" as something you should be interested in, but that's just simplified marketing: the reality is that these "credit scores" are not consistent and have no meaning or usage beyond that agency. Lenders make lending decisions based on information they can glean from these agencies and elsewhere, but they don't use (and nobody else uses) these "credit scores". It's just marketing fluff, it's nothing to do with the government and it's nothing to do with anyone's sense of identity.
Keep up the good work!