02 April 2020

Coronavirus: the pandemic brings out the best in emerging tech and innovation

The coronavirus pandemic has been described as a ‘public health disaster’ and has caused economic turmoil on a global scale, however, it could also be said this situation is bringing out the best in people. This is certainly the case for corporate giants, tech innovators and researchers who are using their resources to offer digital solutions for problems and signpost people to correct information to cut through the fake news.

Signposting and fact checking

The World Health Organisation dubbed the mass of information about coronavirus - some accurate and some not - an ‘infodemic’. Ensuring that people have easy access to trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it is currently a real challenge. 

So far, the NHS, Google and social media networks such as Facebook and LinkedIn have done a lot to prevent the spread of misinformation online. However, dark social (forms of social media that are private such as WhatsApp), private groups on social media and some news publications are impossible to police. This means that a lot of incorrect information is still circulating about the virus, its causes, symptoms, treatment and the global outlook.

British government makes use of chatbots on WhatsApp

The government's coronavirus WhatsApp chatbot

To combat this, the government have taken to WhatsApp themselves. They’re using a chatbot to offer free, accurate information, led by the NHS and medical health advisers, to anyone who texts their designated number. Here’s what the chatbot covers, and the numbers a user must reply with to access the information. 

  •  1 – What is coronavirus? 
  •  2 – Prevention 
  •  3 – Symptoms 
  •  4 – Stay at home 
  •  5 – Travel 
  •  6 – Latest numbers 
  •  7 – Mythbusters 
  •  8 – Share 
  •  9 – More information. 

The ‘Mythbusters’ section is particularly useful, citing information pulled from the World Health Organisation, such as: 

“The coronavirus CAN be transmitted in areas with hot and humid climates.” 

You can use the chatbot yourself by texting ‘hi’ to (+44) 7860 064422 from a mobile phone.

Social listening - a force for good 

Social listening, the act of tracking information shared across social media platforms using third-party tools, has always been a fantastic way for brands to learn more about the aspirations and desires of their target consumers. Brands can even track the attitude toward their goods and services or marketing materials by reviewing the sentiment and emojis employed in social posts. 

‘Misinformation Watch’ was created by a team of social scientists, communications professionals and developers who aimed to use real-time information to provide a data visualisation dashboard to keep track of false COVID-19 claims. It also traces when these claims have been ‘debunked’ (i.e. proven false) and the source for the correct information from a list of trusted fact checkers.

Tech supporting coronavirus detection and treatment 

Though there is no official vaccine, treatment or cure for coronavirus at this stage, tech innovators are still channeling their resources into finding innovative ways to assist. 

Testing, testing 

The WHO has called for countries to “test, test, test” to identify cases of the virus in order for carriers, often asymptomatic, to know to self-isolate and protect high-risk groups of people. Boris Johnson has also added that we require testing to remove the “invisibility cloak” of the virus. 

While coronavirus testing has been widely used by countries such as Singapore and Korea, it remains a contentious issue in Britain, where the government is struggling to honour its commitment to increase the amount of tests being carried out. 

University labs have been working to produce their own fast, cost-effective test to help with the national effort. As a result, a new rapid test dubbed ‘Samba II’ has been produced by University of Cambridge spinout company ‘Diagnostics for the Real World’, and can reportedly diagnose the infection in less than 90 minutes. The company’s goal was to produce a viable means of testing that can be easily carried out in any clinical setting and operated by people with minimal training. 

Samba II machines look for traces of genetic material linked to COVID-19 and are very sensitive in its detection. This test is being used in hospitals in the Cambridge area before it is launched nationwide.

Alibaba - Chinese online retail giant - turns hand to AI to diagnose coronavirus 

Though Alibaba may be best known as China’s equivalent of Amazon, the company has developed an artificial intelligence (AI) tool that can identify the coronavirus with, reportedly, 96% accuracy. This is much faster, and more accurate, than a human. 

The Nikkei Asian Review reports that this AI was developed and tested on 5,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus. It works by identifying the differences in CT scans between groups of patients with the virus and groups with ordinary pneumonia.

New app attempts to detect coronavirus symptoms with voice analysis 

A group of researchers from Carnegie Mellon University (United States) have released an embryonic version of an app that, they claim, can determine COVID-19 symptoms by using your voice. 

This AI-powered system analyses your voice and gives a score between 1 - 10, telling you the likelihood that your voice carries ‘signatures’ of COVID-19. It also provides an assessment of your lung capacity. As tests are currently a contentious issue for the government, due to a short supply and issues with funding, this could be a valuable tool if it works. 

The app’s creators have issued a disclaimer, saying that this app is not a diagnostic system and is not approved by the FDA or CDC and should not yet be used as a substitute for a medical test.

You can access the COVID-19 voice detector here.

Crowd-sourced symptom tracking 

Dr Tim Spector, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at King’s Collect London, is leading a team that have developed a symptom tracking app. The app, open for public use, is a way for researchers to record and analyse data to fully understand COVID-19. 

The aim of the app is to identify high risk areas in the UK, who is mostly at risk and how fast the virus is spreading in any one area. 

If you’re experiencing symptoms of coronavirus and would like to get involved, you can read more about the app and download it here. 

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Though we are facing unprecedented challenges caused by coronavirus, we should celebrate the fantastic, albeit at times experimental, uses of tech that have been developed in a short space of time. 

For our latest updates on coronavirus, please check out our dedicated hub.