Technology | Innovation

How technology can improve our pandemic response

Google Government Affairs and Public Policy Director ANZ, Lucinda Longcroft, told a CEDA livestream event that the COVID-19 crisis has “shown Australia the importance of evidence-based decision making in responding effectively in a health crisis.”

“We hope this evidence-based approach can be extended to other areas of public policy decision making, particularly in the technology sector, to support a confident and certain technology industry in Australia,” she said.


Ms Longcroft was joined by Smash Delta Managing Director, Ben Morley-John, and NSW Department of Customer Service Chief Data Scientist, Dr Ian Opperman, for a discussion on how technology is being leveraged to inform, monitor and evaluate our collective response to crisis management, and the public's acceptance of technology led solutions.


Ms Longcroft began by observing how different our experience of the COVID-19 pandemic would have been 10 years ago when technology was less sophisticated.


“Without the modern digital infrastructure that we can now take advantage of and the remote working tools, the impact of this crisis on our economic output in Australia would have been far more severe.”


She pointed out that despite this, “many organisations in Australia have struggled with a lack of digital progress.”


“The recent period of enforced isolation has driven consumers to adopt digital spending habits and this has largely benefited those companies that have already invested in digital capacity and business models that were rapidly able to adapt.”


Ms Longcroft pointed to studies by Alphabeta and CSIRO that showed Australian business was lagging other advanced economies in digitisation.


She discussed how Google had been working to improve Australia’s COVID-19 response through highlighting health information for the public and the government and removing videos on YouTube that contained misleading or false information.


Ms Longcroft also noted how Google had shared trend data from searches to inform government.


“It was a Google trend demonstrating a significant trend in spikes in searches about domestic violence that led and contributed to the government’s significant increase in support for domestic-violence related policy.


“We provided mobility reports to the public and the Australian Government demonstrating how Australians are reacting during the crisis and demonstrating how economic recovery might be best supported as the crisis continues.


“Ultimately the crisis that Australia has faced has brought home to us and the broader community the importance of modern technology in ensuring that modern economies can respond effectively to the crisis, ensure that we are well informed, and maintain our business continuity.


“We now need to focus on how digitisation can help Australia rebuild and remain competitive as economically important sectors like tourism and education feel the long-term impact of a world where travel is restricted for the foreseeable future.



Smash Delta Managing Director, Ben Morley-John, said that a crucial insight he had gained through his firm’s experience working on data and technology for the public interest is that “data and AI belong to all Australians”.


“We in the tech industry are holding ourselves back if we don’t work with the public, educate them, empower them and make them equal owners of the transformation that is taking place across this country.”


Mr Morley-John says that Australia’s best hope of preventing a return of COVID-19 and limiting the threat of future viruses is in “developing a new capability driven by data. That is, using rich behavioural data inserted into advanced analytical processes, to get a much more granular and geospatial view of the virus spread to better assess risk and to respond with a scalpel not a hammer.”


“Looking abroad, Australians might think that we have to choose between better management of the virus while losing our privacy, or settling for worse COVID outcomes in order to retain our privacy,” he said.


However, Mr Morley-John argued that this is a “false choice” provided that we operate in “true partnership with the public, offering a never before seen level of transparency in how this process is being created, what data it is using, and how it is influencing the choices of the government in pandemic management.”


“If we can deliver this, the prize is not only more effectively managing the virus now, it is being able to communicate to the world that we, as Australians, are ready with a publicly understood and trusted data driven solution to the new pandemic.”


He detailed Smash Delta’s proposal for better pandemic management, providing a comprehensive summary of research that the firm recently launched in collaboration with CEDA.


NSW Department of Customer Service Chief Data Scientist, Dr Ian Opperman, offered insights into data sharing frameworks that would allow Australia to balance protecting the privacy of citizens and effectively managing the COVID-19 threat.


He spoke about how the NSW Data Analytics Centre had been working to link datasets together to address policy challenges, noting that it has proved “extraordinarily difficult” to bring data together while protecting the privacy and anonymity of Australians.


“The concern is always that if you link datasets together you will get to a point where someone is reasonably identifiable.”

 “There has been a strong push for open data around the world. Particularly during this COVID-19 response the emphasis in NSW was to put out as much useful data in the public interest as possible.”