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Sunday, May 17, 2020, 23:49
Epidemic provides impetus to change the world that we live in
By Winnie Tang
Sunday, May 17, 2020, 23:49 By Winnie Tang

The coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic is raging around the world. The situation is very worrying. However, it also brings many opportunities to change the world. Here are some interesting examples:

BlueDot, a Canadian startup, used artificial intelligence’s natural language processing and machine learning to screen news reports in 65 languages worldwide, plus airline booking data and animal and plant disease reports.

Amid this epidemic, Al has been widely deployed. For example, some scientists in Shanghai have used deep learning to examine the CT scans of the lungs. Combined with reviews by human experts, the diagnosing time has been greatly reduced from several hours in the past to four minutes. As extracting saliva samples from deep throat causes great discomfort, researchers are experimenting with other less-invasive methods, such as using AI to detect abnormal breathing sounds.

In the past, everyone said data was like petroleum. In recent years, the analogy has been changed to sunlight and air. Al lives on data. When facing the global epidemic, the Johns Hopkins University of the United States first linked the data of cases from various places for download on its Interactive Map Dashboard. Allen Institute published 29,000 medical papers, including those in peer-reviewed medical science journals. By doing so, they hope to gather insights and have breakthrough discoveries on the pandemic as soon as possible. The scientific research community has always been competing fiercely; their willingness to share precious data implies that this pandemic is an opportunity to bring about change.

Similarly, if Hong Kong’s public and private organizations, such as mobile network operators and the Octopus owner, can share anonymous data on confirmed patients with researchers for free, I believe there will be a good chance to achieve breakthroughs in the local smart healthcare industry.

Amid this epidemic, Al has been widely deployed. For example, some scientists in Shanghai have used deep learning to examine the CT scans of the lungs

This pandemic also brings remote medical consultation (telemedicine) into the limelight. In a densely populated place like Hong Kong, there is always a clinic nearby. Further, since there is lack of official guidelines on telemedicine, many doctors have hesitation in adopting this service.

Fortunately, the Medical Council of Hong Kong announced the Ethical Guidelines on Practice of Telemedicine in December, reducing the gray area of the services. It coincides with the current situation that fewer people visit clinics in order to reduce the risk of infection, which has led to a considerable increase in the number of online consultations. 

According to local medical service and information technology platform DoctorNow Needs, the number of online consultations on their platform has increased “exponentially” since the outbreak. For example, people asked for professional opinions from the platform, so as to decide whether to postpone hospitalization. Although the current number of diagnosis and treatment is not large, with the increase in the number of doctors providing online service and more insurance companies introducing related compensation schemes, I believe that telemedicine will eventually become the norm locally.

On the Chinese mainland, telemedicine has seen an explosive increase in demand during the pandemic. According to JD Health, a subsidiary of mainland online retailer JD, its monthly consultation has risen to 2 million, 10 times the normal level. According to The Economist, the head of JD Health previously expected to achieve this volume within five years of development. But owing to the pandemic, it was achieved instantly. As for the size of the market, analysts from Analysys, a consultancy on the mainland, estimated that it was around 158 billion yuan (US$22.2 billion) before the outbreak, but it jumped to almost 200 billion yuan now, an increase of more than 25 percent.

Telemedicine has always been regarded as an important alternative measure to cope with the aging population and alleviate medical burdens. There have been many discussions on its development without much progress in the past, but it is expected to flourish from now on.

As a map lover for many years, I have never seen any time like this with map playing a major role in addressing a pressing social issue — the pandemic. Interactive map dashboards are used by the Johns Hopkins University, the World Health Organization and over 60 blocs, countries or regions, such as the European Union, Hong Kong, the Chinese mainland, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, the US, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy and Congo, to manage the current health emergency.

In fact, the science enabling these dashboards is the geographic information system which aggregates, organizes, analyzes, and visualizes data according to geographic locations. I am honored to partner with the Smart City Consortium to set up the official information platform for Hong Kong on a voluntary basis. With the joint efforts of the SAR government’s various bureaux and departments, we integrated open data and completed the platform in just a few days. The dashboard provides a clear picture of the pandemic development and helps clear up rumors and confusing information about the pandemic. 

As a planning tool for modern cities, GIS can go far beyond these applications. 

Just as Bill Gates publicly warned a few years ago: It is not nuclear war but infectious diseases that will bring the greatest disaster to the world. In over 10 years of time, the world has experienced SARS, avian influenza (H5N1), Ebola, Middle East respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus, etc. Therefore, the WHO has already urged governments to prepare pandemic influenza response plans at all times. 

In today’s rapidly changing epidemic situation, various government departments need to coordinate anti-epidemic actions, GlS can contribute in this regard. For example, to facilitate internal communication among various departments, the government should set up a common operational picture. This central information platform also serves as a command center, allowing leaders to grasp the situation and allocate resources. In this way, various departments can integrate the latest information and display the emergency situation on the big screen for the commander to decide the corresponding actions. 

These departments include: the Centre for Health Protection and the Hospital Authority (confirmed cases, suspected cases, quarantine), the Immigration Department (the numbers of local, mainland and other residents entering Hong Kong through the three ports of Shenzhen Bay, the airport, the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge), the Information Services Department (to refute rumors), the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (food supply, masks and supplies of daily essentials), the Education Bureau (school arrangements), the Correctional Services Department (the volume of mask production), the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (the closure of facilities), etc. 

More than 20 years ago, Hong Kong took the lead in adopting GlS for planning in Asia. I hope that we can continue to contribute in the forefront in mitigating the impact of the infectious disease on the communities. 

A recent article, an imagined letter from COVID-19 to humans written by Kristin Flyntz, reminds everyone to slow down with classes closed, no more gatherings and shopping, and to reflect on what has gone wrong on Earth as seen in the health of trees, the conditions of rivers, and the severe weather. Will these reflections ultimately change humanity? Maybe this provides the impetus to change the world.

The author is an adjunct professor with the Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Engineering and Faculty of Architecture at the University of Hong Kong. 

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily. 

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