Tech and Innovation In the Time of COVID-19, A Few Thoughts
“Eneke the bird says that since men have learned to shoot without missing, he has learned to fly without perching.”
— Igbo Proverb
The above proverb popularized by Chinua Achebe , the late literary giant sums up my thoughts on the situation we currently face.
The global pandemic caused by a new strain of the CoronaVirus COVID-19 created a challenge the likes of which has not been seen in the last 100 years. At the time I typed this, there have been more than 423K confirmed cases globally with almost 19K fatalities. This virus has proved to be a leveller in every way imaginable by cutting across national, social, economic and racial boundaries. It has combined with a number of other factors to create a perfect storm that has humanity fighting on the same side for the first time in living memory..
As things have unfolded, different governments and health authorities have rallied to tackle the situation with varying degrees of success. It has become clear that, given the far reaching effects of the virus, we all have a role to play. From the amazing health workers who are at the front lines everyday working to keep us safe to everyone else who has decided to do the right thing at this time and stay home to avoid spreading the virus. This article outlines a few of my thoughts on how innovators can plug-in and play a bigger role. I hope it serves as a conversation starter as we all look to bring what we have to the table.
First a few disclaimers, there are so many dimensions from which to approach a conversation such as this one. I dare say that this matter will someday form the topic of a full fledged PhD or Masters thesis. For clarity, the idea I am putting forward for discussion is aimed at getting us to the other side of this experience. There are other aspects of the conversation like “ How on earth did we get here?” . For that I highly recommend Bill Gates’ excellent TED talk titled : “The next outbreak? : We are not ready”. There is a whole other conversation about what life will look like Post-Corona touched on in articles like this one by Elijah Kitaka and this one from Al Jazeera. But for this article I am inviting us to think about and discuss what we can do as a tech community to help us progress beyond where we are now.
Ever since it became apparent that COVID-19 was not just going to “go-away”, we have seen a lot of innovators come forward to ask “how can I help?” and some have actually been able to create products and services that have kept us informed, and saved lives. Examples range from the stellar work being done by some of the larger organizations like Facebook , Google , Microsoft and the Data dashboard maintained by Johns Hopkins to efforts by people in the trenches like TraceTogether from Singapore, the 3D printed ventillator valves in Italy that saved many lives, this simple but effective hack from some medical residents in Sudan to help doctors in Italy overcome the shortage of oxygen sockets and the celebrated toothpick hack from India to ensure elevator hygiene.
I will of course shamelessly plug the COVID-19 Global Hackathon organized by Facebook and other tech giants like AWS, Microsoft and Twitter. If you are an innovator that wants to do your bit to find a solution to COVID-19 be sure to check it out. We have also seen a number of organizations like Ventures Platform (Nigeria), Co-Creation Hub (Nigeria), The NHS (UK) rallying innovators to bring forth their ideas and solutions.
Based on my observations and conversations with a few stakeholders (most of them from the shelter and comfort of my home I grant you), there are a number of bottlenecks that have either delayed or completely denied us the opportunity to effectively leverage our capacity for innovation in finding solutions.
Two issues I have identified can be summarized as follows:
Challenge #1: Validation of ideas and initiatives: Most tech innovation is done by , well …, techies and tech entrepreneurs. And this may be fine when working in other verticals but at the end of the day, the COVID-19 pandemic (and anything that has to do with healthcare) is a matter of life and death with little or no margin for error. Hence most solutions for COVID-19 need to be validated by people who have expertise in this area typically people at the World Health Organization, National centers for disease control or your local hospital. Unfortunately it may be difficult to get the necessary access needed for that validation because the people at these organizations understandably have their hands full dealing with the pandemic and whatever little extra bandwidth they have is simply not enough to go around. The end result is that many of the ideas and innovations never get the validation or support that they need to move forward.
Challenge #2: Lots of great initiatives working in silos: Due to the ever changing and hydra-headed nature of the COVID-19 beast, there has been a need to source innovations not just at the global level but also at the regional, national, state and even community levels to cater for the nuances that exist at each level. For example the implications of practicing social distancing in places like the United States or UK where the available infrastructure can support working from home , online shopping , home deliveries and online schooling are way different from most parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America where the internet, payment and logistics infrastructure are not yet developed to support this. So what worked in one country or region will almost certainly not work in the other without some creative tweaking. This has resulted in a number of different initiatives led by different individuals and organizations, but a lot of this is happening in silos which has led to a lot of inefficiencies.
The end result of the challenges above is that we risk finding ourselves in a situation where we have no choice but to rely mainly on existing solutions and infrastructure to get us through this. But these solutions and infrastructure have already proved to be inadequate thanks to the novel nature of this virus. Developing countries where a lot of this infrastructure is lacking face an even greater risk.
The hunter is now shooting without aiming…
With this in mind I would like to put forward two proposals for discussion. Each one is aimed at mitigating the issues mentioned above.
Solution to Challenge #1: Leverage Credible Tech-Aware community healthcare advocacy groups to fill the existing gap when it comes to validating and mentoring proposed innovation. I think that these groups can help reduce the pressure on the official regulatory bodies by helping to vett and triage the incoming ideas and initiatives which would make it easier for the right authorities and organizations to validate them. The good news is that there are a few of the organizations across the world that can help with this at various levels. For example a few years ago while doing ecosystem work in Africa and the Middle East, we supported the HealthMeetsTech initiative in collaboration with Nigerian HealthWatch and EpiAfric. This proved to me the possibilities that can be unleashed when tech aware subject matter experts in healthcare are put together with a group of builders. Organizations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Doctors without borders could also fall into this category. These are organizations that have over the years developed a muscle for working with tech innovators. I believe that they are needed now more than ever as the connecting tissue between the healthcare space and the tech space. The key success factors for these advocacy organizations to be effective would be:
- Deep knowledge of the healthcare space especially community health or epidemiology
- Deep familiarity with local context in that country / region
- Good connection with the local tech ecosystem in that country / region
Solution to Challenge #2 : One idea being proposed to mitigate this is to have a common open database of ideas , innovations and initiatives for tackling various aspects of the COVID-19. The objective of this database would be to provide a curated searchable list of COVID-19 tech related initiatives. These initiatives could be ideas, prototypes, or fully operational. These could also either be open source or proprietary. Because of my line of work and the company I keep, I have been privileged to be part of a lot of great conversations around ongoing efforts to create solutions to this crisis. Many of them are nothing short of jaw dropping. The sad thing is that a lot of those ideas / initiatives live in various hackathon databases, Whatsapp and Slack chat groups, on Social media and on slide decks in the cloud. Many of those efforts could move ten times as fast and have 100 times the impact if only they were aware of each other. I have people with access to manufacturing facilities looking for the most efficient design for a low cost ventilators for mass production and people who have designed low cost ventilators looking for people willing to put their designs into action. Today I had a chat with an entrepreneur who is into retail logistics in an emerging market region looking for a local manufacturer of personal protective equipment so that he could equip his staff to keep essential services running.
I think this database should be community owned but managed by a multi-disciplinary group led by a team of credible and competent health practitioners e.g the health advocacy groups mentioned in solution 1 above. I think it is key that the health practitioners take the lead as they would be able to help filter and carry out very basic due diligence on the solutions as they are added to the database. This for me is the key to maintaining the integrity of the database and will make it easier for official health organizations and governments to validate and leverage the solutions. There should be different layers of the governance structure to ensure that the ideas are sourced from the grassroots with due attention paid to regional nuances. I believe that the tried and tested governance structures from the opensource world can be leveraged to manage this so there would be no need to reinvent the wheel on that one.
Putting these two together I see a number of benefits for the different stakeholders as follows:
For WHO, National Health Ministries and Disease Control Parastatals, this is a curated database of ideas that make it easier to:
- Find local solutions to local problems
- Understand the possibilities and think outside the box
- Engage with the tech ecosystem in a structured way
For innovators :
- A place to be seen and heard and supported
- A place to be inspired by solutions from other regions that can adapted to your local context
- An opportunity to connect with a diverse set of health professionals
- An opportunity to connect with other innovators with complimentary solutions for partnerships
- A place to find a project/ team to support if you have been looking for a way to help end the pandemic but had no ideas of your own
Health Advocacy groups:
- Another way to bring to leverage the experience and networks built over the years to contribute to solving this challenge
- Building even stronger bridges with the tech community. This will help us ensure that this never happens again
For Health Professionals:
- An opportunity to connect with the tech ecosystem
- An opportunity to lend your expertise to a tech project that might make a difference in this crisis
For Investors and corporates :
- An opportunity to leverage your resources to end the pandemic faster
- Identify strategic partnerships and talent for the future
In reviewing the thoughts above, one thing that becomes immediately obvious is that this database does not just need to contain tech solutions to be effective. It just has to contain solutions. One of the biggest learnings from the HealthMeetsTech Initiative was that most times, the key to the solution was not the tech but in the process that supported it. And so it’s not unreasonable that this database will contain all sorts of solutions and ideas from prototype that leverages artificial intelligence to screen out non-CoronaVirus cases by analyzing the sound of their cough (I totally made this up) to a spreadsheet template that enables medical staff in a poorly equipped hospitals keep tabs on incident reports on their mobile phones (also made up) to a methodology for deploying town criers and community policing to fight fake news in rural communities (not made up). This is again why a multidisciplinary approach is very important for this to work.
I know for instance that an international group of health community advocates I know are already running with this idea and would welcome all support. If you are interested in being part of that effort , are bringing something similar to your region or you have started a similar effort and would like to join forces or just want to learn more please connect with them at: CovidGlobalProject@protonmail.com .
These are just a few thoughts I have on this topic. I welcome thoughts and feedback. I will not deny for one moment that they come from a completely biased perspective.
I have always believed that innovation can come from anywhere. I also believe in the power of community to drive innovation. That has been the basis of my career and that basis of my ideas.
I know my suggestions may be a bit unusual but then to quote Eneke, the hunters have started shooting without aiming
…we must begin to fly without perching.
Practice all the recommendations from your local health authorities.
(Re)connect with your family and loved ones.