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How to Harness Technology to Protect Citizens (Contributed)

Government has many options for keeping Americans safe while helping the economy recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are three core strategies, involving existing technologies, that can make a huge difference.

by Kevin Grauman / April 21, 2020
Shoppers line up outside a Costco warehouse store near Los Angeles. Shutterstock/J.Emilio Flores

I have heard a lot of historical comparisons made to the current COVID-19 pandemic, but none of them feel quite right. The Spanish Flu epidemic of 100 years ago is probably the closest analogy from an epidemiological standpoint, but the world was much a much different place then. 

One thing that keeps coming to mind is Y2K. As it turned out, the feared chaos caused by the calendar switching from 1999 to 2000 ended up being a non-event. In many ways, the coronavirus represents the exact opposite of Y2K. In the late 1990s we saw years of obsessive planning and worry, which turned out to be unnecessary. By comparison, governments at all levels — from the smallest towns to the largest federal agencies — were unprepared for what is happening now. This time around, we ignored the possibility of a pandemic and were left scrambling to find a solution when the COVID-19 wave hit. 

Right now, government leaders must seize the moment and do all that they can to help flatten the curve and get the country past the worst of this outbreak. Today the mission is incredibly simple and time-sensitive: save lives now. That’s where fast technology implementations can play a huge role in making a difference. To that end, let’s examine three ways that government agencies can leverage already existing technologies to make a difference and protect Americans.

1. Implement smart inventory tracking to protect supply chains.

One of the biggest struggles in the battle against COVID-19 has been a chronic shortage of masks, ventilators and basic safety equipment. Panic-buying by civilians and the duration of the outbreak in China, where most of the masks are manufactured, seem to have put a dent in supply.

But that’s only part of the puzzle. The deeper problem is that even when organizations do win bids for masks (often at highly inflated costs), there seems to be no guarantee those masks will actually show up. A California health workers union, which placed an order for 39 million medical masks, has seen at least 6 million go missing, prompting a federal investigation. Meanwhile in Vermont, the state’s order for 3.7 million medical masks saw a million of those masks evaporate.

Especially during a crisis, taxpayers deserve to have their money spent responsibly. A Web-based tool to support the supply chain by tracking equipment and supplies as they travel to their destinations could help ensure that. The good news is that these kinds of inventory systems already exist. The bad news is that no one has yet taken the lead on collecting and managing this data.

2. Make lines virtual to enforce social distancing.

While government leaders in areas under a shelter-in-place order have rightly closed parks, beaches and other public spaces in response to downright reckless behaviors, many people have no choice but to bravely head into public spaces for essentials like food or work. And even as people practice moderate social distancing in public, seeing long lines outside places that are still open, such as grocery stores, government offices and election centers, is enough to make anyone who is familiar with public health initiatives cringe.

Governments have the power, and thus the responsibility, to eliminate at least some of these dangerous situations by mandating appointments or virtual queues for any in-person services that have been deemed essential. In this way, eliminating physical lines could help maintain access to vital services by reducing the number of people in government branches that are still open by necessity. Furthermore, virtual queuing could be a useful tool in helping government offices ease back into service as activity in the nation eventually picks up.

3. Collect and share data to improve outcomes.

This sheer lack of data may be the biggest problem I’ve come across since the epidemic hit North America. It’s not that governments and public institutions are deliberately hiding information; far from it, government employees have been nothing short of heroic in their willingness to share information with each other to help save lives. But just sharing data has its limits because there are so many disparate systems in play. How can a hospital in Seattle share its information with a nursing home in Florida? Right now, the sad answer is “not very easily.”

Civic leaders must use this crisis as an impetus for our country to create a national system to integrate data across state lines to generate a more accurate picture of what’s going on. This obviously won’t be up and running in a matter of days or weeks, but what state and local leaders can do right now is work with neighboring governments to create better integrated systems. Even a moderate improvement on the data we currently have could help leaders make better decisions to protect citizens. Moreover, down the road this kind of cooperation on the local level could serve as the basis for the national public health database that, as this crisis amply demonstrates, we so desperately need.

Short-term fixes, long-term results

Perhaps the best part about these technologies is that instituting them will have lasting value far beyond the COVID-19 epidemic. With citizens now demanding solutions from government, and being more willing than ever to approve of government spending, leaders should leverage this mandate to move their jurisdictions’ technology infrastructures forward and prepare the country for whatever crises the future may hold.

Kevin Grauman is CEO of QLess, a pioneer in virtual lines and digital crowd management. He was named as one of the 100 Superstars of HR Outsourcing in the USA by HRO Today magazine and is also the recipient of the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award. Kevin regularly provides expert business insights to the U.S. venture capital community and is regularly sought by media, pundits, analysts and business owners for his counsel on all things startup and human capital related.

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