A Time Like No Other
If — 6 months ago — you opined that the world would be locked down in the various ways we have seen unfold in the past month, you would have drawn ire and eye-rolling on a biblical scale.
To quote the lyrics to People’s Faces by Kate Tempest;
Was that a pivotal historical moment
We just went stumbling past?
Well here we are
Indeed — here we are, and it’s a huge opportunity for us all.
One area of significant opportunity that is open to us all has to be our collective attitude to technology and the ways it can reduce inefficiency, improve connectivity, and in the current climate, help get us through to the ‘New Normal’.
This shift in attitude to technology needs to flow through society and blow away the majority of outdated and counterproductive thinking (by Governments) and commentary (by the media) that regularly fill content streaming into our lives.
Following are a few lessons that I’ve learned along the way. Some very recent, others have been developing for some time.
Contact Tracing Apps
In the past few weeks, much has been written and spoken about how apps on our smartphones could accelerate the speed and accuracy of Australians at risk of COVID-19 infection. We’ll achieve this with the use of existing technologies that allow very small packets of data to be exchanged between devices with no personally identifiable elements.
The Federal Government moved very quickly to take input from an array of experts, consider a number of options, and propose a solution in record time. It has been extremely impressive.
The counterpoint to this productive haste and decision making by Canberra, is that it acted as a lightning rod for those that fear what our Governments could do with that ‘data’ — which it must be pointed out — is far less in volume and sensitivity than the majority of the population surrenders to the likes of Google, Apple and Facebook on a daily basis.
However, the Government badly misread a number of trap-doors when it started to disclose information about Australia’s Contact Tracing App strategy:
- We know technology. Australians are very well versed on technology and we have been very quick in our adoption. We have one of the highest penetrations of internet coverage anywhere in the world at 86%, and over 90% of the population has a smartphone. And thanks to our telecommunications infrastructure we have some of the world’s best 3G/4G/5G mobile networks. Key ingredients for innovation.
- We don’t trust the Government with technology. With a few exceptions, when the words “government” and “technology” are aired, there is a collective sigh from Australia that heralds the imminent delivery of another technological disaster. The 2016 Census, the ATO website in 2017, the My Health Record registration in 2019 are all examples fresh in most Australian’s minds. My.Gov.au fell short only a couple of weeks ago as COVID-19 impacts rippled across the country.
- Don’t get into the detail without knowing what you’re doing. As soon as the Government started to release details of their proposed solution, tech experts (amateur and professional) began picking apart every word and definition to apply their interpretation. Some were very good. Others were not. Then the media jumped on. A quick tip for several so-called journalists: just because you use Bluetooth to connect your AirPods to your iPhone, that does not make you an expert in Bluetooth connectivity and data.
- Every word matters. Another of the intriguing aspects of this open dialogue about data, technologies such as Bluetooth, and people’s location information, is that every word is really important. It might only be one letter, but ‘Tracing’ is very different to ‘Tracking’.
To the left is a perfect example.
The Government Services Minister, Stuart Robert, in the one article says, “…we don’t care where you are or what you are doing” and then further on says, “…It’s about speed and, of course, manually you might forget where you were,”.
So which is it, Minister? Is the Government going to harvest location information in the app or not? This matters.
Since the start of this pandemic, the Prime Minister and the various Premiers and Chief Ministers have been closely shadowed by their respective Chief Medical Officers and/or Health Ministers to provide objective and authoritative opinion and advice to support the Government’s stance on several issues. Why isn’t there a Chief Technology Officer in place to address technology with the same bipartisan authority as Dr Brendan Murphy or Dr Kerry Chant?
At a time like this, when technology is forging new ground in the hearts and minds of a nation that is collectively facing something very new and profound, make sure you get people who know what they are talking about and how to say it in front of the cameras and behind the microphones.
Two Crises — Health and Economic
Whilst the immediate focus is on the health and wellbeing of 25 million Australians, our attention must soon turn to how we are going to emerge from our hibernation back into a new world.
This will be a time for technology to play a pivotal role in helping our — by then very fragile — economy recover safely and efficiently.
The Federal Government’s decision to use the Singaporean TraceTogether app as the foundation for the Australian solution is both timely and short-sighted.
Yes, it will allow us to have a solution in-market in the next 10–14 days and with it will come the aforementioned headaches. The Government is targeting 40% penetration of the population for the app to have wide communal value for Health Authorities.
That’s a very large number (10,000,000) of installs of an app that does nothing apart from log Bluetooth signals of other smartphones running the same app that are within 1.5m of each other for more than 15 minutes.
The likes of Facebook, Instagram or TikTok are likely above that magic 40% threshold and they perform many tasks and functions — not the least of which is enticing us to open them many times a day.
So, we need to think of life beyond tomorrow and how the ‘New Normal’ is going to feel and how we will use technology to engage with it as we look to rebuild Australia.
This is where the Apple and Google COVID-19 partnership born on the eve of Easter can help.
Apple and Google are proposing a phased rollout of technology that would allow Governments and private enterprise to develop Contact Tracing apps and other SaaS infrastructure that could tap into robust software services (APIs) and decentralised data storage thus promoting more innovative and engaging solutions.
The key differentiator here is that apps that have high engagement such as social media platforms, could have Contact Tracing capabilities built into them and the resulting high double-digit penetration levels would help keep us safer. In time the Contact Tracing will be built into the Apple and Google operating systems (iOS and Android) which will increase adoption significantly,
However, Contact Tracing alone won’t save the Australian economy.
As we come to the realisation that life as we knew it will forever be changed, we must use all our senses to consider what might be the most appropriate, effective, and innovative ways to get us moving again.
This is an ideal time for wide-open discussion and debate on the capabilities of technology in Australian society and what that might yield for businesses small and large in the coming months. We are voracious consumers of technology, and now is the time for Government and private enterprise to turn those leadership attributes into positive societal and economic actions for as many people as possible.
Engagement cannot come at the expense of political sensitivities. There’s too much at stake.
An idea that I and some very clever people have been working on is the concept of transactions that are appropriately socially distanced but allow us to spend time with one another in cafes and restaurants and pubs. Getting back to our way of life. It’s very early days but we can develop platforms that get Australia moving and at the same time integrate solutions like that being proposed by Apple and Google — can only be good for the economy.
For example, now that Bluetooth technology has matured from that ‘dark-art’ that connects our wireless devices, we should start to look at ways that the very same technology that will help us continue to ‘flatten the curve’, can also help get Australia back to the economic front-runner we know it can be.
We must not be afraid of what we don’t know. We must not be afraid to take some risks.
The term “Smart Cities” has been around for a few years now and for the most part, Australia and several western economies were dabbling in the virtues and benefits that this way of thinking can deliver.
At its heart, Smart Cities are those that embrace technology and innovation in ways that work for the collective benefit of as many inhabitants as possible. Australia has not been a laggard in this space by any stretch of the imagination.
If you have ever used a public transport app such as NextThere and seen information on how full the bus or train is. That’s Smart Cities at work.
Key to Smart Cities and their ‘smarts’ is the use of Internet of Things (IoT) technology. IoT is essentially an array of sensors — many of them using Bluetooth — as well as WiFi and 4G / 5G to communicate with larger software systems that can turn the small, secure packets of data into powerful learnings and customer orientated actions.
The other characteristic of IoT is that more often than not they are passive pieces of hardware that only become useful when you need them to be and we have more of them in our lives today than most people realise.
Anyone who has misplaced a set of keys knows the joy of IoT when they have been made ‘smart’ by the addition of a Tile. Very simply, a battery-powered piece of hardware about the size of a postage stamp that uses an app on your smartphone combined with Bluetooth to track and locate anything from keys to laptops to pets.
If you wear an Apple Watch — that’s an IoT sensor. The data from the 7:43 am train from Hornsby to Wynyard (remember those days!) that says on the NextThere app that the fourth carriage is very full, is provided by an IoT sensor in each carriage that measures the weight of the carriage every time it leaves a station. That data is turned into a visualisation in the app.
If you have a Smart Meter in your home that provides you with up to the minute power consumption and options to optimise your consumption is all powered by the Internet of Things.
As we move around the cities we love and live in, there are many ways that technology works to improve our way of life. Traffic lights, escalators, air-conditioning systems, and even advertising can be optimised based on data coming from the devices in our pocket and the powerful IoT systems already in place and ready for even more growth.
Beyond the home, this constant exchange of data plays critical roles in logistics for road, air and rail transport. Again, all those services that tell you where and when a parcel is to be expected and where it is on the road — all that data comes from various forms of mobile data and IoT.
IoT and other digital technologies are exactly what Australia must embrace if we are to use the learnings from these critical weeks of isolation, working as a unified force against the spread of COVID-19.
This almost limitless combination of technologies is what will ultimately set us free and get the economy working again whilst adapting to the new view of the world around us.