Key Insights

Leveraging AI During the Pandemic

ESI ThoughtLab

Before 2020, a thermal scanner detecting people’s temperatures in the streets would have perhaps been considered a breach of privacy, but the coronavirus pandemic has made some cities reevaluate the benefits that technology, in particular artificial intelligence, can provide to help address crises. Cities have expedited the adoption of technology to combat the spread of COVID-19. They are also paying closer attention to better urban planning and smart solutions to help them to intelligently fulfill their communities’ needs and keep them safe, both now and in the future.

“AI will be instrumental in future prevention and combatting of natural disasters, pandemics, and global crises,” said David Donovan, Executive Vice President, Financial Services Americas, at Publicis Sapient. “There will be huge advancement and focus on medical research in order to prevent this kind of an occurrence in the future, and AI is at the core of that research.”

In China, for instance, cities are using robots to carry out cleaning and food preparation tasks to minimize their citizens’ exposure to the virus. Multiple cities in Australia and New Zealand are testing driverless vehicles and buses to transport people with less risk. And a food market in Medellin, Colombia has implemented facial recognition software to detect information about customers, such as their approximate age, their temperature, or whether they are using their masks correctly.

“A bright spot in the COVID-19 pandemic has been how people and companies across the AI spectrum have come together to collaborate with healthcare, government, and academia,” said Ari Kaplan, Director of Industry Marketing at DataRobot. “Global crises come in many forms, and AI can help predict when and how they arise, and once they do, how to minimize their harm.”

AI helped to combat the coronavirus itself, as healthcare organizations used the latest analytical techniques to improve virus detection and advance vaccine research. Hospitals have used chatbots to screen patients and determine whether they need to visit their facilities. AI has also been essential to help cities track hospital beds and supplies in the wake of shortages. The coronavirus pandemic is only one of the many emergencies that can affect urban areas that can be alleviated by artificial intelligence. Technology can be applied to attenuate the effects of various environmental, economic, and social crises.  

“AI can play a role by modeling future crises and recommending mitigation strategies. These include predicting the impact of climate change on food crops and recommending different seeds or agricultural strategies which use less resources and provide greater output,” said Alyssa Simpson Rochwerger, formerly Vice President of AI and Data at Appen. “AI applications can calculate the data around the number of damaged homes and structures or high flood levels to provide that information for first responders to make quicker, more accurate decisions to coordinate response and recovery efforts,” added Simpson.

Importance of data management and integration

Advanced data management systems are another technology tool that proved to be crucial during the pandemic. Technology heads at government agencies, who are responsible for continuity of so many vital services during a crisis, know this better than anyone. In the city of Philadelphia, for example, the Chief Information Officer, Mark Wheeler, has focused in recent years on unifying data and making it accessible across the city. The city manages more than 250 publicly available datasets for tasks as varied as parking violations, building footprints, and commodities contracts. With centralized data and internal APIs, his team has been able to build new analytics dashboards with visualization features to give city workers easy access to more data. This foundational work proved very valuable during the pandemic, when access to data was critical. When COVID-19 sent the majority of city workers home, Wheeler and his IT team were able to keep both citizen services and digital initiatives running smoothly.

Looking beyond the pandemic, Wheeler expects the focus on technology solutions in his city to increase even more. “Technology around the customer and case management systems and those integrations among our operations have been a priority for me since I became CIO. But COVID pointed out that it’s an essential that we can’t ignore anymore. That’s where we have to focus and that’s what I hope to achieve next.”

Laura Garcell Nimylowycz is an editorial assistant at ESI Thoughtlab, where she supports the editorial team with project management, research, and editing. Ms. Garcell Nimylowycz attended Columbia University as a Kluge scholar and received her Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and History in 2019. While at Columbia, she was a staff writer for the university newspaper the Columbia Daily Spectator, as well as an editor for the Columbia Journal of Politics and Society.