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Technology's Mixed Record in Responding to a Pandemic

While it's helped a lot of Americans who are displaced from their offices get their work done, it's fallen short in areas like education and disease tracking and has once again highlighted the digital divide.

Paulina De Loza, 8, holds her computer for at-home learning in Los Angeles. Schools have struggled to use technology during the pandemic. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
With smart cities and the need for digital transformation of government already top of mind for state and local leaders, the coronavirus pandemic's disruptions have provided a sort of field test of how technology is really able to respond to key civic and societal challenges. So far, at least, it's a mixed picture.

One of the most dramatic initial changes had an immediate impact on Main Street business activity as consumers shifted their purchasing heavily to online, adding to the disruption from the waves of business shutdowns that began spreading in March. This shift caused some challenges for companies in scaling up. Amazon, for example, temporarily halted inbound warehouse shipments of third-party sellers' goods. It also de-prioritized shipments of non-essential items, including, ironically, its original category of books. But these companies quickly adjusted, and there may well be a permanent uptick in e-commerce market share as a result of the crisis, particularly in sectors like grocery.

Meanwhile, in the white-collar office world, almost overnight both corporate America and the public sector shifted the bulk of employees to work from home. This led to a dramatic upsurge in the usage of video collaboration tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams. Demand above normal can easily overwhelm capacity in a system, as America's toilet-paper shortage in the first weeks of the pandemic showed. But while there were a few bumps in the video systems, these providers were able to rapidly scale up operations, allowing surprising degrees of effective collaboration despite the sudden dislocation of work. Corporate IT and consultancies also were able to successfully ramp up, deploying additional infrastructure where needed. Accenture, for example, provisioned 80,000 laptops within a week to its workers who were normally based in its offices.

America's broadband internet providers have not been as successful. While most of the country's households have high-bandwidth internet service, hours spent on Zoom calls have revealed just how many intermittent problems these connections can have, regardless of carrier. People planning important webinars are now arranging fallback plans in case a speaker's Internet connection freezes. I've begun using a cellular data connection for important interviews or presentations because inevitably my wired connection would have problems. I know from the grumblings I hear from others that I'm far from the only one in this situation.

These sorts of technology deployments are basically traditional consumer and business applications extended to the next level. But what about the use of technology for transforming the civic realm? Here, the results are less encouraging.

Education switched to many of the same remote technologies as business, but not as successfully. Especially at the high-school level, absenteeism from online courses has been a problem. Many minority and lower-income students are likely to be left permanently behind if virtual schools are ineffective in remote teaching this fall. Meanwhile, well-to-do parents are creating multi-family home-schooling "pods," either directly managing their children's online learning or hiring a teacher to home-school them.

Particularly in education, the realities of the digital divide have again been magnified for us. While white-collar workers may be experiencing intermittent broadband problems, many lower-income families in both rural and urban areas don't have broadband at all. One need the coronavirus has underlined, once again, is for rock-solid, affordable universal broadband. It's a precondition for a more digital future.

Other aspects of civic tech also fell short. Start with virus tracking. For a while we've heard about how technology was going to allow us to revolutionize public health. Yet successful applications have proven elusive. Back in 2008, for example, Google researchers said flu outbreaks could be predicted from the company's search data. Google Flu Trends worked well for a while, then was quietly retired after failing to properly track the 2013 flu season.

The technology of data analysis has advanced dramatically since then — or so we're told by Silicon Valley — so it would seem that artificial intelligence/machine learning applications would be ideal for analyzing and predicting the course of COVID-19. But this doesn't seem to have happened. Instead, governments continue to rely for the most part on traditional epidemiological models that have to be frequently, and frustratingly, revised.

Similarly, smartphone data should allow for a form of automated contact tracing. But in the United States this has foundered on the shoals of privacy concerns and other hurdles; talk of automated contact tracing has mostly disappeared.

It may well be that digital technology will revolutionize public health for the better in the future, but further work needs to be done to build out these capabilities.

What Silicon Valley-style software has been very good at during the crisis is producing slick visualizations for digital publications. This includes things like tracing where the people who fled New York City went as the pandemic struck or showing changes in the utilization of various transport modes.

These are good things to know. But the gap between software's ability to produce great visuals and its ability to actually deliver civic results is one reason the smart cities movement has often been a disappointment. There's still much work to be done to reap the promise of technology for addressing key challenges like the ones posed by the coronavirus.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.

An urban analyst, consultant and writer. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @aaron_renn.
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