Tech companies step up support for Covid-19

April 15th, 2020 | by Grace Chng
Tech companies step up support for Covid-19
ILLUSTRATION: Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

As the coronavirus pandemic has spread across nearly every country, major tech companies have also stepped up to support governments, healthcare authorities and their customers better manage the Covid-19 health crisis.

Some are offering free services, others have announced initiatives and developed applications that hasten contact tracing, predict the spread of the disease and quickly identify coronavirus patients.

Cloud services heavily tapped

For better or worse, there has never been a better time to showcase cloud services than the current pandemic period.

With people sheltering in their homes and avoiding contact with other people, working remotely is the new order of the day. What serves remote work better than cloud services?

Governments and healthcare authorities are tapping the cloud to continue to operate as well as track the spread of the disease, monitor outbreaks and develop vaccines.

Alibaba Cloud is offering its cloud-based AI-powered computing platform available for free to global research institutions to accelerate viral gene-sequencing, protein-screening and other research in treating or preventing the virus.

In particular, the Chinese company is providing its computational and AI platforms including machine learning tools to monitor CT scans and other medical records to help healthcare authorities quickly identify patients.

Dr Derek Wang, general manager of Singapore for Alibaba Cloud, said that these tools were used during the initial outbreak of the coronavirus in China.

The insights gathered there had helped the healthcare authorities to predict future trends. Currently, it is sharing its know-how gleaned from its China experience with other healthcare authorities, he said in a recent interview with Techgoondu.

He added that medical professionals and researchers can access Alibaba Cloud’s research arm DAMO Academy in a free trial to aid in disease control and diagnosis. 

Dr Wang said Alibaba’s AI algorithm helped shorten processing of Covid-19 cases to around 10 seconds per case. Its tools also more accurately predicted potential outbreak trends.

Separately, Google Cloud has also been part of wider industry efforts to provide services and tools to track the spread of the virus and keep business and home learning operational.

Not to be left out, Huawei unveiled a plan last week where it is providing free AI and cloud services to governments and healthcare authorities around the world.

This, it said, would aid in areas like viral genome detection, antiviral drug in screening, and AI-assisted CT patient screening service. 

From the communications perspective, meetings have moved to the cloud as remote work is the new norm. Face-to-face meetings have been replaced by software such as Zoom, Skype, MS Teams and Webex, all of which operate from the cloud. 

Virtual meetings, video calling and messaging have all exploded. In the US,  Microsoft said the numbers using its software for online collaboration had climbed nearly 40 percent in a week.

Hence, it announced that it will prioritise access to its cloud-based Azure services to first responders, emergency services, and critical infrastructure if there are capacity constraints. Challenging times demand tough decisions. 

If there is a silver lining emerging from the pandemic, it is that the cloud sector is thriving and will likely accelerate further even after the pandemic is over.

App to track the virus

Bridge-IT is an app to help people and organisations keep up to date with accurate facts on COVID-19.

Developed by SAP and Qualtrics technology, it collates information from trustworthy sources including The World Health Organisation (WHO), and combine it with specific country data, local government guidance, travel information and relevant company policies, to provide localised information for users. 

Developed by SAP’s Asia-Pacific and Japan Innovation Office, the app will be available free of charge to all SAP employees and customers globally who have an SAP Cloud Platform Enterprise Agreement.

Mobile automated contact tracing

The pandemic has also brought two arch rivals together. Normally, the iOS and Android camps would be battling each other for a greater share of the consumer heart.

In a rare collaboration, Apple and Google are teaming up to build technology that enables public health agencies to write contact-tracing apps.

From next month, Google and Apple plan to update their phone operating systems with new APIs (application programming interfaces) that apps can use to track what other phones have been close by using Bluetooth signals.

Health authorities will be able to use these APIs to build digital contact tracing apps, with some development help from Google and Apple.

This is indeed an excellent move. Earlier this year, it would have been unbelievable that the mobile phones can be used to trace and monitor people’s movements due to privacy concerns.

With the pandemic raging in the United States and in Europe, this kind of surveillance can be a key component in helping restore society to normalcy in the months ahead. 

Singapore and many governments have released apps for digital contact tracing as well. In Singapore, there have been about one million downloads of the contact-tracing app, made by the government agency GovTech, called TraceTogether.

With an eye to privacy, Apple and Google said governments would not be able to require its citizens to use contact-tracing software built with their APIs in the new OS. Users will have to opt in to the system.

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