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Can Technology Prepare Us for the Next Big Crisis?

Earlier this month, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation released a report outlining numerous tech-driven stimulus proposals to help the United States be better prepared for pandemics in the future.

by / April 16, 2020

A recent report suggests that U.S. policymakers should direct stimulus money toward digital technologies to reduce the impact of a future pandemic. 

The document, which comes from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), lists almost 30 different stimulus proposals. 

“It is not clear whether COVID-19 is a rare 100-year event or the new normal,” the report read. “Regardless, policymakers should err on the side of caution, and act as if it is the latter, especially if their response reaps benefits regardless of whether we face another pandemic that requires widespread and sustained physical distancing.”

One of the main points made in the report is the need for individuals and organizations to have the technological means to maintain physical distance and continue working. Internet access is a key limitation for many areas in the United States, so the authors call for greater support from the federal government, including a new broadband deployment fund, the allocation of more spectrum for 5G and more money for broadband adoption efforts. 

“While many Internet service providers have programs to help low-income families with adoption — and virtually all have expanded these programs during the COVID-19 crisis — a full solution requires federal support,” the report said. 

One education-specific proposal would expand the free and reduced lunch program so that schools can purchase devices for qualifying low-income children. The report also stated that the Federal Communications Commission’s E-Rate program should be adjusted so that schools can be reimbursed for providing “Wi-Fi hotspots or wired broadband installation kits” to students. 

Some of the proposals emphasized ways to make transactions more digital to help the economy stay afloat and prevent the probability of illness spreading through physical contact. One idea is to offer electronic IDs to citizens to facilitate various types of online transactions, such as contract signings. Furthermore, the authors advise the government to put an end to state and local restrictions on e-commerce and cashless stores and to “accelerate the adoption of mobile payment technology.”

“[D]espite most consumers preferring such cash alternatives as credit cards, the United States lags behind other countries in adopting non-cash payments,” the authors explained. 

Several of the proposals suggested a need to accelerate emerging technologies, such as autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence, that can enable greater physical distancing and reduce human intervention. The most dramatic proposal is investing $5 billion a year to create an “Apollo-like program” for robotics. 

“Robotics are the ultimate in physical distancing, as they do not get sick,” the report said. “Robots could help deliver food and tests to patients in hospitals. They could help care for the elderly in nursing homes. They could administer tests such as throat swabbing and taking people’s temperature.”

Other substantial policy recommendations revolved around the collection or use of data to track how a pandemic spreads and affects life in general. The authors advocate for a “globally competitive smart-cities program and national Internet of Things (IoT) strategy” so that cities can better gauge how people’s behavior changes and how services should be managed during a pandemic. 

Related measures called for new federal standards in regard to electronic health records and government data in general. 

“Congress should require states to adhere to federal data standards for any federally funded state IT systems so data from prescription drug monitoring programs, longitudinal education databases, and law enforcement records is collected in a uniform manner — thus making it possible to analyze data across states in an easier and less time-consuming manner,” the report said. 

One limitation of the report is that while it strongly pushes for the development of various technologies that can be linked to individuals’ private lives, the document doesn’t share a proposal that addresses cybersecurity or the potential for technology to result in undesired outcomes.  

The authors also contend that cost shouldn’t be an issue with these stimulus proposals. 

“Some will argue we don’t need to do these things, or that we can’t afford them,” they argue. “Given Congress just appropriated over $2.2 trillion for relief efforts, the sum of the initiatives proposed here are significantly less expensive.” 

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Jed Pressgrove Staff Writer

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.

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