The Role of Technology in the Fight Against COVID-19

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By Yeva Hyusyan, co-founder and CEO, SoloLearn

Although many Americans would readily agree that technology has improved their quality of life over the last decade, the shifts coronavirus has brought to our society have brought with them a newfound reliance on technology. Students are adjusting to classroom meetings held over Google Hangouts, businesses are sending their workers home and, in some cases, offering outcome based structures rather than traditional hourly work, and industries like grocery stores have shifted to digital models overnight. Beyond these day-to-day shifts, we are seeing more nuanced forms of technology, namely data science and software engineering, playing a huge role in the fight to flatten the curve.

Data Science to the Rescue

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, or IMHE, is a prime example of how data science is saving the day during these uncertain times. Their COVID-19 forecasting model, otherwise known as the Chris Murray model, predicts the impact that coronavirus will have on the hospitals in each state. This model was used to inform early White House decisions regarding how to best mitigate the effects of coronavirus. Furthermore, as governors worked to determine school shutdowns and “Stay Home, Work Safe” measures, metrics like this became vital. Knowing how many beds your hospitals can fill is critical to understanding how equipped your state is to handling a pandemic. 

Specifically, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation provides a hospital resource use metric that displays the number of beds needed against the number of intensive care unit beds needed against the number of invasive ventilators needed. In rural states like Louisiana, knowing the hospital bandwidth was instrumental in determining whether or not school could continue. Prior to cancelling school statewide, Governor John Bel-Edwards was faced with the stark realization that the projected cases of coronavirus amounted to six hundred more hospital beds than were available within the state. Having this information allowed state leaders to make the informed decision to take all necessary action to prevent the spread of the virus in order to ensure that those infected were able to receive swift, quality treatment at their local hospital. 

State and local governments have further utilized data science to drive decisions and share data with their public, in order to ensure all citizens remain informed. A perfect example of this is the PowerBI dashboard set up by the state of Washington. Their COVID-19 dashboard offers real-time data regarding the numbers of cases and deaths per county. The beauty of a system like PowerBI is that it takes raw data and translates it into an infographic that can be widely disseminated and easily understood by people across industries. This type of technology allows people to stay informed and up-to-date, allowing a group of people to apply diverse thought to a novel problem. In fact, the state of Washington was able to formulate a complete action plan to deal with coronavirus, and has seen a dramatic drop in overall cases since they began taking action.

Programming languages, like those we teach on SoloLearn, have been instrumental in the fight against  coronavirus. Take Python, for example. Andre Arroyo of Towards Data Science created a Python model of the COVID-19 epidemic that allows for real-time tracking and simulation. This technology is so advanced that it can answer questions that analyze various solutions. If the government of a specific city set a lockdown on a specific data, this Python application is programmed to generate a hypothesis of how that will impact the transmission rate of coronavirus. Curious about what would happen if everyone stopped using their masks? This program models the answer. 

The Brazilian Space Agency recently published a paper regarding the role of C++ in coronavirus mitigation. In fact, it created one of the earliest models to track the outbreak and predict its growth over time. We know that early detection is critical in the fight against this virus because of the ease with which it is transmitted to others. The earlier researchers are able to identify the location of the illness, the faster quarantine can be implemented and the spread can be lessened. 

Programming languages as old as COBOL, a more than sixty-year old computer language, have seen a rise in need during this pandemic. Because COBOL is the system that was used to house information on important federal programs like social security, it is more critical now than ever that programmers know how to utilize it. As various governments struggle to get money into the hands of citizens, being able to maneuver programs such as these is a must. 

In fact, many were concerned the IRS would be unable to get much-anticipated stimulus checks to Americans because COBOL underpins the IRS’ security systems.

“The IRS has struggled to find employees who can work with the COBOL language that underpins a computer system first set up in 1968, according to the Government Accountability Office.”

Andy Sullivan, Reuters

In other words, not enough people are trained in running this code to manage the Internal Revenue Service. This is just another example of why knowing an array of programming languages is critical to ensuring that you can market yourself and your skills. 

Generally, the more that you know, the better equipped you are to solve a problem. Thereby, it would stand to reason that the more society knows, the better equipped society is to handle a problem. Therefore, open access to data has never been more important.

Companies like Ericsson, a Swedish networking and telecommunications company, have proven just that. Their initiative to create a COVID-19 Open Research Dataset has offered nine tasks to learn more about coronavirus and arm biologists and medical staff with this information. Ericsson is hustling to combine the research to answer many critical questions.

  • What do we know about COVID-19 risk factors?
  • What do we know about the effectiveness of non-pharmaceutical interventions?
  • What do we know about vaccines and therapeutics?

These questions are certainly no small ask, and the work of researching their solutions presents no small task. However, Ericsson is doing critical work by making such research public and ensuring that researchers and medical staff have everything they need in order to do their most efficient work. 

Similarly, Nextstrain offers real-time tracking of pathogen evolution. Their mission is to improve outbreak response by collecting data and consolidating it into visualization tools that allow a variety of people to interpret it. As we see a rise in conspiracy theories and citizens opting not to wear masks, readily available, regularly updated data is the key to helping bring awareness and solutions to the table.

The COVID Symptom Study asks everyone to report the state of their daily health, which allows experts to get a massive step ahead in identifying the next location of coronavirus outbreaks. Harvard suggests that regular participation in this application by American citizens could lead to early identification of COVID hot spots and allow medical experts to identify new COVID symptoms as they emerge. 

Software Engineering Saves the Day

Software engineers have truly joined forces in an unimaginable way to begin solving this problem. The COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium identifies as “a unique private-public effort spearheaded by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the U.S. Department of Energy, and IBM to bring together federal government, industry, and academic leaders who are volunteering free compute time and resources on their world-class machines.” These folks have worked on putting all relevant COVID data into a database, ensuring that the best minds in the world are able to collaborate on solutions.

This organization has consolidated their work to bring supercomputers in the fight against coronavirus. These machines can quickly and efficiently run multiple forms of data through their processors, allowing possible solutions to be tested and eliminated much more quickly than they would during a standard lab trial. Although this doesn’t rule out the need for laboratory trials, it can allow bioscientists to quickly rule out methods that do not work, and save their trials for solutions that have the highest probability of success.

Under this effort emerged Folding@home, an organization that is essentially mining computer power in order to manage these simulations and calculations. Interested volunteers can donate their idle computer power in order to ensure that the data that is being run to fight coronavirus never encounters undue pause. In other words, the extra computer power allows software engineers to always be running searches regarding the best, and most relevant, data in the fight against coronavirus. Each simulation has the potential to lead to a cure. 

Supercomputer data can be transferred into artificial intelligence programs, like AbCellera’s machine learning model. This technology can analyze a multitude of cells from patients who have recovered from coronavirus. This program has now identified hundreds of antibodies that may be useful in the fight for a cure.

Additionally, the world has seen spikes in the usage of telemedicine. Software developers have been working around the clock to improve the usability of applications like Beam.Health, that allow users to conference virtually with their doctors. Even when patients go into their doctor’s offices, Beam.Health allows them to conference in from the car. Then the doctor can provide a sort of curbside medical service, which prevents an infected patient from bringing droplets or other negative particles into their waiting rooms. 

Beyond the critical, and somewhat consumptive search for a cure for coronavirus, exists the questions of how to reimagine daily life in the wake of COVID-19. As companies adapt to the new normal that social distancing has brought us, they will need to consider whether or not their software strategies are adapted to the work that they are doing. While many companies previously offered grocery delivery strategies, or options for curbside pickup, the influx of new clients to non-traditional grocery shopping has meant that companies have needed to update (or create) consumer applications to manage these new ways of operating.

Politico researchers posit that after coronavirus, the world will shift from asking whether or not we can do something in person to whether or not we can do something online. This means that even once the concerns from coronavirus have been mitigated, it is more than likely that individuals and businesses alike will shift into virtual models of existing. With that in mind, code will become more important than ever. From the chat rooms that govern communication to the WooCommerce applications that allow for online shopping, it will be critical for coders to continue to usher us into the modern era. 

As the coronavirus pandemic is teaching us, coding is the work of the future. What coronavirus is also teaching us is that the future is today. We can no longer afford to consider learning technological skills to utilize someday–we must join the movement now. If you are considering learning to code, there is no better time to start. 

About the author: Yeva Hyusyan, is co-founder and CEO of SoloLearn. Prior to founding SoloLearn, Yeva built a startup accelerator for mobile games, consumer apps, and ag-tech solutions. In a previous role, she implemented World Bank and USG programs in business, education, sales, developer ecosystem development and strategic partnerships as a General Manager at Microsoft. Yeva holds an MBA in Corporate Strategy from Maastricht School of Management (the Netherlands), an MS in International Economics from Yerevan State University (Armenia), and completed the Executive Program from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. Yeva has been named to the Crunchbase-compiled list of 50 Female Entrepreneurs To Watch in 2019.