Good in a crisis: How tech firms are doing their bit in the battle against COVID-19
Read time: 8 mins
From video calls to streaming movies, tech services are helping to make daily life manageable – while disruptors and developers are accelerating solutions to help us deal with the virus in all sorts of ingenious ways.
The Technology & Media industries have played a huge part in keeping the country going and in good spirits as we push our way through the challenges of lockdown whilst we await the very different new normal on the other side. Likewise, innovation and creativity will also be key to our post-COVID-19 recovery.
The nation’s mental health has been significantly enhanced by digital connectivity and offers of free content and calls, for example. And as millions of us adapt to working from home for an extended period of time, we can thank our innovative technology industry for disrupting and improving past business models so that we can continue to work, communicate, bank, learn, purchase and generally operate our businesses. Much of this would have been unthinkable as recently as the global financial crisis.
It has also been heartening to see the many tech and media businesses which have put their extensive powers of innovation and data tech skills at the service of the national effort to mitigate the effects or help develop a remedy for COVID-19.
Rainbird supports the NHS
Intelligent automation firm Rainbird, for example, has rapidly built an online interactive tool that provides tailored advice on appropriate self-isolation measures for NHS staff. Rainbird founder and CEO James Duez takes up the story.
"When it became clear that COVID-19 was going to change everything and everybody was planning to work from home, we wrote an open letter inviting the world to use our technology for free where they felt it could benefit others."
As well as working with the big four banks to help them manage financial forbearance, we also responded to a call from the NHS. In eight days we built a solution that is able to tell members of staff and key workers, based on the rules around self-isolation, whether they should come to work.
‘This was really key because there’s just enough ambiguity between NHS and government guidance for the rules to be misunderstood.
'It was paralysing the occupational health department.’
The tool can be updated in line with changing guidance, and has now evolved into a platform that can identify who is a priority for testing. ‘If you’re an NHS worker and you’re perfectly okay but your child is sick with symptoms of COVID-19, the NHS will want to test your child, because they may be on seven days’ isolation but you’re on 14 days’ isolation and they need you back in hospital. So they've become a very high priority for testing,’ says James. ‘Every day, hundreds of people consult with Rainbird about their symptoms, and the tool is able to present back to the hospital the prioritised list of who should be tested. In a world where there have been limited supplies of tests, that’s really important.’
The tool was provided to one NHS Trust and is now being adopted by others. Innovative agility has enabled the software to evolve to meet changing needs on the ground. ‘The tool has expanded now into a project that’s doing a much more comprehensive risk assessment of key workers. For example, talking to key workers about their medical fitness, their pre-existing conditions and age. Whether their religious beliefs mean that they can’t shave and can’t wear PPE, for example. Whether women are pregnant and if so, how pregnant because the rules about whether it is safe for you to be in a COVID-facing ward or even in a non-COVID clinical environment or even in a hospital at all are changing every day as we learn more about the disease. Rainbird can interview every member of staff, tell them what zones they are safe to work in – or whether they should be working at home. As everything changes, it gives hospital management the ability to know who can work where and when. Every time the logic changes, people can be reclassified in order to preserve their safety and those of the people in hospital.
‘One of the things that makes our technology so applicable to this use case is the fluidity of how everything is changing. Within a week of putting this live we had changed it several times. It went from supporting the public, to supporting frontline workers, to prioritising testing, to prioritising testing with a more sophisticated set of rules, to now identifying broader risk. We've been talking about identifying PPE risks as well, and moving into mental health, to ensure frontline workers are properly signposted to support services.’
A lot of this logic can also be applied beyond the NHS too. ‘Every organisation has a duty of care to understand whether its staff are safe and isolating properly. They also need to understand and plan centrally around what resources are going to be available, especially when you consider that the frontline is outside your front door now. It’s anybody who's not at home, from Amazon workers to your binmen. Some of these people have pre-existing medical conditions, and they’re being subjected to greater risks by being out.
‘So helping employers in their obligation to support their people is a spin-out opportunity for us from the work we’re doing for the NHS. We’re making this available free to any of our existing clients, and anybody who's not a client of Rainbird can have it for free so long as they have just the most basic subscription, which is not very expensive. Why? Because this is about trying to make a difference at a time when the world needs to be using technology to solve some of these problems because of both the global scale of the issue and the pace at which our knowledge around this disease is changing, which needs to be incorporated dynamically into decision making.’
Rainbird is also looking to help in other countries too, including in response to approaches from African countries where the incidence of and preparedness for the disease are tracking some weeks behind the UK. If you’d like to try out a simpler, household version of the tool, go to https://nhs.rainbird.ai/.
The tech giants weigh in
Rainbird is just one example of tech firms providing invaluable support at this time of crisis. Facebook, for example, has been working on generating heatmaps of the outbreak by surveying users. The survey, part of a coronavirus research project conducted by Carnegie Mellon University to analyse the spread of COVID-19, will support the efficient allocation of medical resources to areas of greatest need. In addition, the tech giant is to provide further categories of data to epidemic specialists through the Disease Prevention Maps programme, which is crunching aggregated location data between partners across 40 different countries.
O2 has responded to a British government request to supply anonymous data from its mobile phone network to help generate heatmaps that can determine whether people are following social distancing guidelines. Microsoft UK, meanwhile, is providing all NHS mail users with three months’ free access to Teams, its workplace collaboration platform. It is also working with the likes of Google, Palantir and AWS to support the NHS in developing a new secure, robust data platform.
Healthtech on the front line
The UK’s highly skilled and funded healthtech sector has understandably been front and centre of the business response to COVID-19.
"Over the last month the UK’s healthtech sector has shown why it is a global leader, quickly using its expertise to develop practical solutions to help the government and the NHS with innovative products and services to respond to those in need." says Caroline Dinenage, Minister of State for Digital.
‘We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the startups and tech companies that have switched their entire focus to backing the national effort to tackle this health crisis.’
Innovation has been rapidly accelerated by necessity, and tiny startups and modestly resourced scale-ups are now pitching in alongside public bodies and tech giants united by a common cause. Here again, the examples are many and varied.
Oxford Nanopore Technologies has made its sequencing products available worldwide, to help with scientific understanding of the genetic epidemiology of the virus. AccuRx, which is already used by GPs to text patients, developed a video consultation product in a weekend that is already been widely used by surgeries for online appointments. Medopad is working with Imperial College and John Hopkins University on a remote patient monitoring platform for chronically ill patients and the vulnerable. Triscribe is shifting its analytics capabilities to track drug use and medicine stocks. Temporary staff platforms like Patchwork Health and OnCare have been made freely available to NHS Trust and care providers.
The mother of invention
The pandemic has also inspired a series of inventions, often inspired by medical professionals and scientists working in concert with technologists and industrial designers.
Concerned at a lack of ICU ventilators, Dr Rhys Thomas, from Glangwili Hospital in Carmarthen, Wales, developed an easily constructed emergency ventilator that can support patients’ breathing and help clean viral particles from the ambient atmosphere. Working with engineers CR Clark & Co, the simple machine can help keep patients out of intensive care. And because patients can use it themselves, specialist nurses are freed up to prioritise other patients in greater need.
The Welsh government has backed mass production of the device. ‘It shows that Wales, as a small nation, can get things done quickly as we face the biggest challenge of our generation,’ said Plaid Cyru leader Adam Price.
Meanwhile a protective snood with an antiviral coating has been successfully developed and launched by Virustatic Shield, with large numbers set aside for NHS stock. The snood was developed at the Menai Science Park in Gaerwen on Anglesey, a hub for innovative start-ups working hand in hand with science. A hands-free door handle has also been developed here, by Wyn Griffiths. Easily built by 3D printer and attachable to an existing handle, the clever design enables people to open the door with their forearm, rather having to use hands which they have just sanitised.
Hospitals around the world are deploying robots that can fire beams of UV light which, in tandem with manual cleaning and administered safely away from human contact, is thought to be able to eradicate traces of the virus on surfaces.
The Sunday Times Fast Track series recently published a special Profit Track COVID-19 supplement, highlighting the efforts and initiatives of private companies at this time to support their staff and communities, contribute to the effort to stop the spread of the virus, and help rebuild the economy. Ocado, for example, has bought 100,000 COVID-19 test kit for staff. Ineos has built a new hand sanitiser plant near Middlesbrough, Brewdog is producing hand sanitiser at its brewery in Scotland, and Brompton Bicycle is making 1000 new folding bikes that will be rented free of charge to NHS staff to help them get to work. The list goes on, and many of these positive stories are featured on the Fast Track LinkedIn page.
Riding out the virus and getting back to work
No one would regard COVID-19 as an opportunity, but restarting the economy will be key to getting the country back on its feet, and it is heartening to see signs of positive activity and recovery in any sector. Within tech and media, our experiences are likely to inform the next wave of disruption. Some subsectors will be propelled forward in a way not contemplated only a few weeks ago. Industry-leading videoconferencing, fintech, edtech and ecommerce companies are identifying new opportunities and building appealing cases for lenders and investors, who have been quick to publicise their continued willingness to back good businesses.
My expectation is that the realisation, in all sectors, of how quickly workforces and their leaders can learn, adapt and innovate, when their livelihoods depend on it, will inspire a new generation of start ups. Many of these will be guided by what did not go so well in their transition to home working in the knowledge that it is now here to stay.
Such companies, like those on the BDO-sponsored TechTrack100, are also unique in not relying on offices, transport, shops and physical meetings. Already, we can see that COVID-19 will forcefully accelerate digital transformation, operational flexibility and enhanced customer experience. And once the scientists develop medical responses to COVID -19, we may be relying on global data and technology businesses to target and accelerate their adoption.
Of course, 2020 was also meant to be a great year for media, what with the US elections, the Olympics and the European Championships in football, as well as continued growth in streaming and leveraging media assets. What now?
In the short term, we are of course seeing substantial pain within conferences and events businesses and many other highly creative businesses, particularly where agencies are heavily aligned to consumer product, hospitality and retail businesses, less so within businesses with a preponderence to tech sector clients. Such businesses have generally responded well with rapid assessment of cash requirements, the use of furlough, deferral and other government schemes. The recovery may be boosted to some extent by organisations needing to remind their customers that they are still alive and kicking and have the ability (and agility) of agencies to support rapid relaunches, reopening offers, repositioning towards e-commerce and takeout, and so on. Where agencies have significant flexible labour, notwithstanding the now-delayed IR35 changes, this will serve them well. Having said that, there is a real need for governments to understand that business will transition out of COVID-19 rather than simply rebounding overnight. Government support will need to be eased gently. Some of the smartest agencies are reading the market well and considering how their entire business models may need to shift rapidly to a more digital outlook with the obvious consequences for investment required and pricing.
There are also significant opportunities for gaming, VR, e-sports and other virtual entertainment businesses, whose popularity is soaring. Similarly, the owners of high-quality media assets will find this content in much stronger demand as live productions remain on hold, the inevitable COVID-19 fatigue replaces Brexit fatigue on the news channels, and available time accumulates for all age groups in every household. Disney+ launched in the UK on 24 March with perfect timing; as of May 2020, the streaming service has now reached more than 54million subscribers around the world.
I would urge our great technology and media businesses to focus on their KPIs (in particular cash, work in progress and production spend), continue to make full use of government support, communicate regularly and insightfully with clients rather than becoming internally focussed, and reach out for help when needed.
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