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Story | Research
31 May 2020

Responding to crises in an age of information overload


Image source: ImageFlow, via Shutterstock

Researchers from QF’s computing research center discuss how Artificial Intelligence is playing a role in fighting COVID-19

Most countries around the world are making it mandatory for residents to download contact-tracing apps. However, the question remains as to how much of our data stays private and whether this gives into the phenomenon of surveillance capitalism.

“Any kind of crisis has led to this – as we know historically. After 9/11, people gave up a lot of their civil rights. This caused backlash, but then after a lot of introspection, people started realizing that the shift had happened. And this is no different,” Dr. Faisal Farooq, Principal Scientist and Head of Digital Health Research at Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI), says.

However, Dr. Farooq does highlight that as researchers, especially from the computer science and technology sector, their responsibility should be to create solutions that draw a fine balance between privacy and civil rights.

Dr. Faisal Farooq

“There is the policy side of things where we can definitely enforce our influence – this is where we create solutions to solve problems while also taking into consideration the issues of privacy. It should not be a case of giving up one thing to get another.”

Contact-tracing is a disease control tactic that usually relies on the movements of patients and identifies people that might have been infected so they can self-isolate. It is a data exchange platform, and data exchange platforms are being viewed as critical in dealing with the pandemic.

Data is being created and consumed at alarming rates. Unfortunately, much of this data could be fake or just opinions not backed by scientific analysis, and this data cannot be used in policymaking.

People are still struggling to get access to quality data, and the lack of good data is hampering decision-making processes

Dr. Faisal Farooq

“People are still struggling to get access to quality data, and the lack of good data is hampering decision-making processes. More than ever, if Artificial Intelligence (AI) data science can process any of this, it would be extremely helpful in a way that it is embedded within the response that we have for these pandemics, or in general for any crisis,” Dr. Farooq says.

Dr. Kareem Darwish

“We didn’t know if closing schools or restaurants would make a difference. We have seen from mobility reports that if some restaurants close, demands on others increase. And this causes congestion points. And so, there have been unintended consequences of the lockdown measures. Having lots of data for AI is the only way to measure the efficacy of such decisions,” says Dr. Kareem Darwish, Principal Scientist at Arabic Language Technologies, QCRI – part of Hamad Bin Khalifa University.

Dr. Darwish highlights that there should be an understanding of the fact that lockdowns and similar types of measures are taken by authorities to buy time.

“This all or nothing approach (with regards to lockdowns) is really due to the lack of preparedness. We don’t have enough data to make decisions on. So, everyone is erring on side of caution and saying ‘we can't have our health systems be overwhelmed’,” says Dr. Farooq.

He adds, “On one hand we don't have information about the pandemic, which is expected. On the other hand, some don't even have information about what they should have. For example, Sweden updated its ICU registry every 30 minutes for the entire country. Whereas, one hospital in Flushing, New York, was overwhelmed with ICU patients on the street, while just a few blocks down in another hospital in Queens, the beds were completely empty.”

Image source: Bob boz, via Shutterstock

Once the situation has been contained, scientists at Qatar Foundation’s research centers will go back to the drawing board to find ways to improve their solutions. Dr. Ahmed Elmagarmid, Executive Director of QCRI, says that despite the fact that he and his team works closely with the end users, “the impact of adaption is not necessarily where it should be.”

He highlights introducing new technology, especially in the middle of a pandemic, and adapting to it is hard. “I asked myself, why is contact-tracing or most of the contact-tracing in China automated, and has very high proliferation? And then reading an article I saw, in New York, they were very proud that they trained 300 contact tracers. So, there is this sort of gap between technology and its adoption.

As technologists and computer scientists, we have to step back and see how we develop and how we introduce new technology

Dr. Ahmed Elmagarmid

“When you've got healthcare workers and public health officials running around, trying to deal with life and death situations, and you're handing them a technology that's new to them, it won’t be very effective. As technologists and computer scientists, we have to step back and see how we develop and how we introduce new technology.”

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