CrisisReady co-founder Andrew Schroeder was interviewed for an article which appeared on June 3, 2021 in The Verge on the role that big technology firms played during the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the article, despite exceptionally high expectations at the outset of the pandemic for the role that companies like Google and Facebook would play, in everything from contact tracing to mobility data to vaccine registries, their actual projects turned out to be more of a mixed bag in terms of results.
The article gives a quick overview of past failures and successes and highlights potential avenues for future collaboration. Covid-19 exposed inefficiencies on part of both the public sector and private technology companies as they worked towards common goals. Although big technology firms have the data and analytical firepower to support large-scale public health efforts, they often lack the translation-readiness pieces around integration and interpretation needed to support decision making at various levels of governance.
In order to design for the collective welfare of communities, public institutions and frameworks for collaboration are essential. “Big tech companies can be extremely useful,” says Andrew Schroeder. “The question is, how do you make sure that designing with the public good in mind actually happens?” Clear, multi-sided understanding of public problems, matching the goals of various stakeholders, encourages creative solutions that are to the benefit of everyone.
The use of human mobility data to monitor and study the implications of social distancing measures around the world is the example par excellence of this type of effective public-private-nonprofit engagement. Technology companies like Facebook, Cuebiq, and Google provided a set of regularly updated and relatively straightforward and privacy-preserving metrics which spoke directly to specific, timely needs of public actors in ways that no other datasets realistically could.
This type of comparative advantage in real-time public health data provision has carried through in Facebook’s ongoing global Covid-19 survey. “Facebook, every single day, is surveying hundreds of thousands of people all over the world,” Schroeder says. “Could any government run a survey, daily, globally, at that scale? The UN doesn’t have the ability to do that, and they’re the only ones who would have the authority globally.”
Nevertheless, one of the key lessons of the pandemic is that governance matters – a lot. Without strong, flexible and responsive public governance technology fails both to understand and to fulfill key public needs in emergencies. “What’s really clear, and I think this was clear well prior to the pandemic,” Schroeder says, “is that tech doesn’t substitute for strong public institutions.”