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Learning from COVID-19: Going Forward, Democratization of Technology is Must

The COVID-19 global pandemic, apart from being an unparalleled crisis, is a unique opportunity for the world to enhance efforts around technology democratization, so that we can collectively be prepared to take on future challenges.

By Avneep Dhingra
By Avneep Dhingra

Associate Editor | Policy & Public Affairs

The ubiquity of technology in developed parts of the world is simply astonishing. Almost everyone has a smartphone and access to high-speed Internet. But netizens do not necessarily assert their ascendancy — for them it is part and parcel of living in a “connected society”. No wonder that a handful of countries account for nearly 90% of the market capitalization value of the world’s 70 largest digital platforms and over 75% of the cloud computing market (UNCTAD’s Digital Economy Report, 2019).

But what about less developed parts of the world, where the “connected population” is below 20%. There is little or no access to mobile networks and the Internet, let alone emerging technologies, which have the power to boost governance and decision-making — thereby boosting socio-economic development. According to the World Economic Forum, among the many inequalities exposed by COVID-19, the digital divide is not only one of the starkest, but also among the most surprising.

  • In 47 least developed nations, over 80% of population is still offline
  • In the most extreme case, a mere 2% of population is using Internet
  • Women are lagging in terms of access to digital technologies in two thirds of countries around the world
  • In India, there is Internet density of 49.78%, which means that every second person is not connected
  • In most parts of the world, digital divide is determined by factors such as location, income, gender, age, etc.

How we are divided

A 2019 report (Measuring digital development: Facts & figures) by ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau suggests that only 4.1 billion people, or just over 53% of the global population, are online, while a staggering 3.6 billion people are unconnected. Further, in 47 least developed nations, over 80% of the population is still offline. ITU data show that in the most extreme case, a mere 2% of the population is using the Internet. The report indicates that the women are lagging behind men in their ability to take advantage of the power of digital technologies in almost two thirds of countries around the world.

“Access to connectivity is not a luxury, but a critical service to society. As we have witnessed today, our networks must remain resilient and responsive to citizens’ immediate needs — whether it is businesses (of all sizes), government institutions, education and healthcare systems, power utilities or transportation providers,” says Mike Calabrese, Vice President of Global Enterprise and Webscale at Nokia. Even in a fast-developing country like India, there is Internet density of 49.78%, which means that for every person who is connected, there exists one who lacks access to the Internet. In most parts of the world, this divide is determined by factors such as location, income, gender, age, etc.

According to the World Health Organization, the need to spread information about how to combat COVID-19 is most urgent in poorer countries, where migrants and the destitute are most vulnerable to the virus. Further, children’s education has abruptly come to a halt, and work from home is an option for very few people. In the absence of technology access, these problems render governance ineffective, often leading to continued suffering for citizens. “This digital divide, which is not just about having the Internet, but about having data to make decisions, has to be bridged,” emphasizes Milorad Kovacevic, Chief of Statistics, United Nations Development Programme.

With the world rushing to build maps, dashboards and apps to combat the COVID-19, the significance of technology, especially geospatial data and tools has once again come to the fore

With the world rushing to build maps, dashboards and apps to combat the COVID-19, the significance of technology, especially geospatial data and tools has once again come to the fore

How tech democratization can help

With the world rushing to build maps, dashboards and apps to combat COVID-19, the significance of technology, especially geospatial data and tools has once again come to the fore. Almost every major organization — ranging from businesses, academic institutions to news broadcasters — were seen using spatial data for planning, acting and information sharing. It did not take long for governments, healthcare service providers and other responders from all over the world to realize that they all needed such technology tools to mitigate the coronavirus crisis. “GIS is unique because users everywhere can create their own individual sets of information as map layers. Everyone’s content is compiled and is represented as a series of information overlays covering specific areas across the planet. In today’s world of cloud computing, all of these layers have their own individual URLs, enabling these layers to be integrated and synthesized together,” says Esri Founder and President Jack Dangermond.

Democratization of technology has the power to change people’s lives. The access to technology, from the simple to the sophisticated provides the innovative environment to push technology further and to participate in its advancement meaningfully. “The opportunity to use technology gives us the tools to re-imagine and redefine jobs and industries that can help us thrive mentally, physically and economically as communities. That access is vital,” argues Trimble President and CEO Rob Painter.

Access to connectivity is not a luxury, but a critical service to society. Our networks must remain resilient and responsive to citizens’ immediate needs

Mike Calabrese

Vice President, Global Enterprise and Webscale, Nokia

The real power of technology lies in the valuable information that can be derived from it. In any given situation, especially in case of a health emergency, connectivity and access to accurate information can make a world of difference. For instance, if we hadn’t been able to trace the origin of the COVID-19 back to Wuhan, or track its movement and spread, the number of infected cases and fatalities, apart from the damage caused to the global economy would have been a lot higher. “The ability to access information from anywhere at any time has never been more important. For example, our companies, and even our governments, are now operating from thousands of locations where they hadn’t been before — employees’ homes. This means software and services that enable collaboration have become critical in ways we didn’t expect, but now rely upon,” explains Hexagon CEO Ola Rollén.

We are living in a fast-changing world, which poses new challenges to our survival every now and then. In such a scenario, technology is the best tool for crisis management for all stakeholders. “Therefore, democratization of technology is tremendously important for governments, corporations and all other decision-makers who have a certain social responsibility, so that we are all able to act as timely as possible based on the most current and,” feels Matthew Zenus, Global Vice-President, HANA & Analytics, Solution Strategy at SAP.

One of the most impactful traits of GIS information is the user community’s strong interest in sharing — we all need access to each other’s data

Jack Dangermond

Esri Founder and President

Why is ‘where’ so important

The COVID-19 outbreak has disrupted our entire world. From healthcare services to school education, business processes to everyday movement, each and every activity performed by human beings have undergone a drastic change. As we collectively adjust to the new normal, the knowledge of location and all the information related to it (what, how and when) will hold the key to our survival and well-being.

The opportunity to use technology gives us the tools to re-imagine and redefine jobs and industries that can help us thrive mentally, physically and economically as communities. That access is vital

Rob Painter

Trimble President and CEO

Today, governments around the world are using contact tracing through mobile applications to keep the people safe, and are relying on location tech to streamline work operations, strengthen supply chains and restart industries. For example, India’s National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) has developed an online dashboard to capture information regarding millions of migrant workers who were stranded due to the nationwide lockdown to provide them relief and facilitate their safe movement across states.

“Being able to visualize information about confirmed cases, fatalities, testing facilities, or where to buy supplies is a very powerful and effective way to communicate critical information. We have seen first-hand how governments are deploying feature-rich, yet accessible technologies to develop dynamic maps and dashboards that help their citizens understand the threat of COVID-19 at local, regional and national levels,” says Mladen Stojic, President, Hexagon Geospatial.

How can geospatial make a difference

With data holding unprecedented significance in today’s day and age, geospatial technologies provide not only the ability to manage and integrate data, but also the analytical tools that support quick decision-making, thereby saving both time and money. Using data in new ways helps in reviving sluggish economies and making governments and organizations efficient and resilient in the face of a crisis.

“Geospatial information provides context to information to determine the what, where, when and why of something. The influence and impact that knowledge can bring is powerful, particularly during a crisis such as COVID-19,” adds Painter. Since the current pandemic began, developers, researchers, geoscientists and health organizations have been developing technological tools and apps to help inform and enable societies to adapt and rebuild. Widely sharing these map-based resources are helping people and industries regain control and certainty.

Going forward, geospatial data and Location Intelligence are going to be critical for economic recovery — from being able to continue tracking the spread of the virus and its impact at any given time, to supporting cities and nations that are trying to understand what is the new normal for their essential services and management of everyday public life.

The ability to access information from anywhere at any time has never been more important. Our companies and governments, are now operating from thousands of locations where they hadn’t been before

Ola Rollén

Hexagon CEO

Who should lead the way and how

As we move ahead, It will be important that resource-rich organizations act as enablers in ensuring that people have equal access and support to create or adopt solutions that work specifically for them. “For example, in ArcGIS Online, users have created over 35 millions layers worldwide. We estimate that as many as 40-50% of these items are publicly shared,” adds Dangermond, highlighting that since the beginning of 2020, extraordinary efforts worldwide sprang up as a global response to the coronavirus pandemic. “GIS practitioners and heroic people everywhere joined together to implement and apply community GIS in virtually every nation and global region as well as at local levels. One of the most impactful traits of GIS information is the user community’s strong interest in sharing — we all need access to each other’s data.”

Governments, businesses and trained developers can commit to creating and offering open-source approaches to information sharing, system development and data management, says Painter. For example, users in underdeveloped countries could use a free and open-source desktop GIS tool to work with geospatial data, analyze datasets, connect to external tools and publish and share geospatial information. User-friendly environments such as these give stakeholders efficiencies and confidence to build knowledge and develop systems and plans that best serve their communities.

As we move ahead, it will be important that resource-rich organizations act as enablers in ensuring that people have equal access and support to create or adopt solutions that work specifically for them

Likewise, geospatial manufacturers can provide support and tools that enable developers to create specialized applications that bring the best value to their working environments. For instance, a trained developer could create simple, customized workflows to aid in locating and tracking virus hotspots and concentrations of infected people. “On-demand access to real-time, accurate geospatial data and Location Intelligence for all is critical for a coordinated, global response to any shared crisis,” adds Rollén.

Providing access to technology is akin to providing opportunity, but that’s possible only through partnerships and collaborations. “Governments, big and small businesses and societies would do well to partner in that and provide the hardware, software and infrastructure to allow local innovation to happen. Creating tools and applications to gain knowledge is one of the best ways to build strength and resilience to better respond to an ‘unknown enemy’ like a future pandemic,” emphasizes Painter.

“It’s definitely possible to work together and learn from each other’s experiences and experiments, but there is no one-size-fits-all response. With the diversity of solutions needed across geospatial applications, the idea is the same. COVID-19 is an opportunity for sharing best practices to aid in future situations where we are experiencing the same challenges at different times for different reasons,” feels Rollén.

Dangermond thinks that the geospatial community must work to ensure technologies are open, interoperable, and readily accessible worldwide. These goals include effective configuration and use of COTS tools, adoption of best practices, and open information sharing across geospatial organizations, because shared data layers are easily integrated in to GIS.

The COVID-19 pandemic may have caused tremendous disruption to the global society and economy, but has also acted as a wake-up call, a unique opportunity to enhance efforts around democratization of technology, so that we can collectively be prepared to take on future challenges.

If the Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis’, (as stated by John F. Kennedy) with one brush stroke standing for danger and the other for opportunity, perhaps it’s time to shift focus to the second stroke of the brush.