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GeoTech Cues April 16, 2020

Can tech companies embody global values and ride to the rescue?

By Charles Jennings and David Bray

The global coronavirus crisis presents new challenges not just of scope, but of speed. In a pandemic, each day matters and each minute. And who better than the regional technology hubs around the U.S., to include Silicon Valley, Austin, Portland, Boston, Raleigh-Durham, and more to address the need for speed in defeating coronavirus and accelerating economic recovery? The tech industry not only understands rapid change and disruption, it thrives on it.

Technology companies are starting to step up. Apple and Google announced development of a new “contact tracing” service using cell phones; Facebook and Intel have created multi-million dollar funds to support COVID-related tech innovation, and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey has pledged $1 billion, almost a quarter of his personal wealth; Facebook, Google and YouTube are posting public health information related to “coronavirus” searches; Tesla is making ventilators. All encouraging, but not enough and it is important to be ever mindful of unintended ripple effects tied to these initiatives. There are values baked-in to each of these initiatives, whether tech Companies intend for them or not, and it is important to be mindful of these values and what they mean both for the short-term response to and longer-term recovery from this pandemic.

In advocating that tech companies – and perhaps more importantly Technology Communities – work globally to advance tech programs and a global data strategy to inform the coronavirus response and recovery, this rally call is not asking tech companies to do anything that conflicts with the Western world’s heritage of personal liberty and free markets. Certain personal data collection techniques employed by Asian countries—especially China—are indeed too draconian to be used widely. Yet that does not mean public-private partnerships should do nothing to standardize and strengthen national tech programs designed to defeat COVID and accelerate an intelligent and informed economic recovery.

Tech companies may need to consider a modern “Golden Rule” during this time of crisis: whatever actions you do now, make sure you are okay with them five years from now too. Actions we take today will shape the future ahead.

Atlantic Council

Until a COVID-19 vaccine is available, the global economy and every nation in it will struggle to regain solid economic footing. There is no binary “On/Off” switch: the reopening of factories, restaurants, sports stadiums, industries and regions will happen slowly and sporadically – informed by data both about the local population as well as whether it is possible to become re-infected the coronavirus a second time as well as spread the coronavirus even after recovering from an initial infection. Since every viral pandemic in modern history has had at least one second wave, there will likely be re-closures also, well after this first wave has passed. The only way to dial up and dial down economic activity is to distribute data on a scale, at a speed and with a precision never achieved globally. As should be clear by now, this needs to be done global and in ways consistent with values of personal liberty and freedom. Big Tech can choose to advance both these efforts and values if it does so intentionally.

Banks also have an important role to play. The U.S. Federal Reserve and Europe’s Central Banks have crucial data, the power to command, presses that print money. Big Tech needs to partner with national, state, and local government – as some of the smartest infectious disease experts in the world work these governments and have been operating on the frontlines throughout this pandemic. Big tech also needs to partner with non-profits that can help serve as a bridge between these different groups and a “Jimmy Cricket” of sorts, asking tech companies to think through the intended and unintended ripple effects of actions today on the future ahead. As noted, in our rush for solutions it is essential to be mindful of our values tied to initiatives.

Tech companies may need to consider a modern “Golden Rule” during this time of crisis: whatever actions you do now, make sure you are okay with them five years from now too. Actions we take today will shape the future ahead. Tech companies both in the U.S. and globally must show leadership and work collaboratively across sectors and nations to build innovative global information services similar to those that have been so successful in Asia, but in ways consistent with the values of the Western world.  

For tech to play a key role getting us through this crisis, citizens around the world also must insist that both governments and tech companies provide data transparency, so we can have credible information with which to drive valuable new data services. We need to advocate—from wherever we are in the global economy—for new tech that makes it easier to work at home and stay properly socially distanced. We need to convince elected representatives at local, state, and national levels to put innovative tech to work in all infrastructure stimulus plans. For both tech companies and governments, we need to encourage both sectors work to include diverse stakeholders in efforts to rebuild and recover from COVID-19.

Skeptics of the “tech for good” mantra might say that all tech companies care about is making money. While this is debatable; even if this is so, tech industry leaders are quite good at following their self-interest—and smart enough to see it. Tech companies have the resources to help us better manage this pandemic. If you are a leader of tech company today, what could be of greater benefit to your company than a healthy population, a revitalized global economy, and new international capabilities to fight this crisis, and the next one?

The GeoTech Center champions positive paths forward that societies can pursue to ensure new technologies and data empower people, prosperity, and peace.