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Computing’s Role In The Pandemic

February 18, 2021

How can we help?

Joe Biden is the 46th president of the USA. Note {46} is called a centered triangular number. These numbers obey the formula:

\displaystyle  \frac{3n^2 + 3n + 2}{2}

and start with {1,4,10,19,31,46,\dots} The previous one, the {31^{st}}, was Herbert Hoover, hmmm. Biden has promised to make controlling the Covid-19 pandemic one of his top priorities.

Today I thought we would discuss how he might use computer technology to help get the virus under control.

First, we thank the drug companies since we now have vaccines that work against the virus. Without these we would have little chance to bring the pandemic under control at all.

Second, we must state that we are worried that the virus is mutating and this may render the current vaccines less useful, if not useless. We hope this is not happening, or that the drug companies will be able to respond with vaccine boosters. Today there seems to be good news and bad news.

Results will fluctuate, but in any case, vaccines will definitely play a key role in defeating the pandemic. We want to ask the same about computing technology.

Computing’s Role—I

There are many web sites that discuss how computing technology can play a role in defeating the pandemic. Here are some of the main points:

{\bullet } Tracking People: Many places are interested in tracking who are sick. Tracking can by itself help stop the spreading of the virus, and thus help save lives. For example, IEEE says:

“We believe software can help combat this global pandemic, and that’s why we’re launching the Code Against COVID-19 initiative…,” said Weiting Liu, founder and CEO of Arc. “From tracking outbreaks and reducing the spread to scaling testing and supporting healthcare, teams around the world are using software to flatten the curve. The eMask app (real-time mask inventory in Taiwan) and TraceTogether (contact tracing in Singapore) are just two of the many examples.”

{\bullet } Changing Behavior: A powerful idea is to avoid human to human contact and thus stop the spread of the virus. For example, here are examples from a longer list of ideas:

  • Robot Deliveries;

  • Digital and Contactless Payments;

  • Remote Work and Remote Learning and more.

{\bullet } Changing Health Delivery: An important idea is how can we reduce the risk of health delivery. A paradox is that health care may need to be avoided, since traditional delivery requires human contact. There are many examples of ways to make health care online, and therefore safer. Shwetak Patel won the 2018 ACM Prize in Computing for contributions to creative and practical sensing systems for sustainability and health. He outlined here CCC blog how health care could be made more online.

Computing’s Role—II

The above ideas are fine but I believe the real role for computing is simple:

Make signing up and obtaining an appointment for a vaccine easier, fairer, and sooner.

In the US each state is in charge of running web sites that allow people to try and get an appointment for a vaccine shot. Try is the key word. Almost all sites require an appointment to get a shot—walk-ins are mostly not allowed.

I cannot speak for all states and all web sites, but my direct experience is that the sites are terrible. Signing up for a vaccination shot is a disaster. The web sites that I have seen are poorly written, clumsy, and difficult to use. They are some of the worst sites I have ever needed to use, for anything. Some of the top issues:

  1. The sites require you to sign in each time from scratch.

  2. The sites require you to sign in each time from scratch.

  3. The sites require you to sign in each time from scratch.

  4. The sites rules are confusing and unclear.

  5. You may need to search for particular vaccine locations, rather than for any locations.

  6. And more {\dots}

Repeating (1,2,3) is a poor joke, but one that reflects reality.

Open Problems

If Amazon, Google, Apple had sites that worked this way, they would be out of business quickly. Perhaps this is the key: Can our top companies help build the state sites? Is it too late to help? See here for a New York Times article on this issue:

When you start to pull your hair out because you can’t register for a vaccine on a local website, remember that it’s not (only) the fault of a bad tech company or misguided choices by government leaders today. It’s a systematic failure years in the making.

Also is the issue of algorithmic fairness relevant here? We know that it is unfortunately easy to have web sites that are unfair—that assign vaccine sign up dates unfairly, that favor one class of people over another.

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