• Wednesday, Aug 12, 2020
  • Last Update : 05:45 pm

OP-ED: The solution may lie in collective intelligence

  • Published at 09:59 pm June 9th, 2020
AI Coronavirus
Photo: BIGSTOCK

How technology will play a key role in tackling Covid-19

Artificial intelligence can help with grave challenges like the current pandemic, but it requires the right human input. It is always better when a group of people work together, with the help of technology -- as a collective intelligence -- to make better decisions together. 

Wisdom and knowledge emerge out of a group when it is not possible by individual intelligence. Collective intelligence is now being used around the world by communities and governments to respond to Covid-19. 

The Bangladesh situation

The good thing about Bangladesh is that the government is taking the pandemic seriously, and also has taken economic and public health steps to mitigate damage. The bad is that mass people are losing their incomes, and stimulus spending is under criticism. 

The ugly thing is that many Bangladeshis are living in extreme poverty (Only 15% of Bangladeshi workers earn more than $6 a day, according to WE-Forum). They suffer as a result of the lockdown, and public health crisis may emerge in refugee camps for Rohingya. 

Lessons from other countries  

As a country, we could learn important lessons from other countries like China, Spain, Italy, and others, which have responded promptly. The question is, when China has 10 times the health expenditure per capita than Bangladesh, and Italy has eight times higher than China, how much of their policies could we use here? Also, to remember: Health insurance is a luxury here and 90% of our workers are from the informal sector.

A humanitarian crisis

We should admit that Covid-19 is a humanitarian crisis in the public health dimension. Large-scale physical distancing is becoming difficult due to food insecurity. We need to find ways to keep our people safe while protecting their means of living. We must provide food and emergency cash to them if we want them to stay home completely.

The importance of contact tracing

A contact tracer app allows people to automatically record their contacts throughout the day. It can track individual movements and people they interact with over the course of a few days. The location information from their phones (geo-tagged data) has proven invaluable in contact tracing in countries like South Korea, China, and the United Kingdom.

This will be difficult to implement in Bangladesh, where many people struggle to even understand text messages, most homes do not have any sort of internet connectivity, and many people do not use smart-phones. 

The government can use private software developers to set up websites and apps to build detailed maps tracking the movements of individuals (maybe only the confirmed cases of coronavirus) without publishing very detailed information about them. People can add themselves willingly into the system by providing their contact numbers. 

Mobile network providers can provide their GPS coordinate information for individuals. People can view their daily movements on the map and come to know if they were with close contact with a person who may have developed symptoms for Covid-19. 

Real-time monitoring and information sharing

The government should take an approach of openness about the infections, without thinking too much of potential privacy infringements. This may help people make decisions about putting their selves and others at risk while increasing awareness about the potential threat. Information can be plugged in to coronavirus-related dashboards tracking the pandemic.

Social media mining

Governments can use public-generated data regarding Covid-19 to monitor the spread of the disease. They can mine posts from social media and use tools of Natural Language Processing to identify people mentioning respiratory problems. Also, locations of reported fever by doctors and individuals can be traced. 

Media reporting cannot be trusted always, and it misses people’s experience of the virus. People from Wuhan posting to social media was a good indicator of how diseases spread, before the Chinese government started censoring. Governments can also trace individuals or groups, who are providing misleading information, growing confusion and creating conflicts.

Open source test kits

Lack of access to testing for Covid-19 means there is a need for cheap and quick coronavirus testing. The government can take initiatives to crowd-source ideas to produce test kits. Then the design can be shared to certified laboratories to produce test kits for local communities.

Sharing of knowledge

During this crisis, collective intelligence about the virus should be shared to respond and find the treatments. The scientific community of our country can share the genomic profile of the virus, publications, learning resources, handbook of tools, technology, and data through a national database.

Gather, reason, curate, and act

Practising social distancing principles that Western countries depend on to limit dissemination is becoming culturally difficult in Bangladesh. But we should remember that we have one of the strongest professional health staff networks in the country, a long tradition of public-private response collaborations, and societies with unprecedented rates of resilience to tackle the crisis collectively. We as a nation can adopt social practices that involve collective intelligence to tackle crises like Covid-19. 

We can practice it through four main activities of gathering (crowd-sourcing intelligence through mass public participation), reasoning (analyzing data to make actionable information), curating (defining strategies through reports and visualization), and acting (coordinating resource mobilization). 

Sajib Hasan is Assistant Professor, Department of Computer Science, American International University-Bangladesh (AIUB).

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