Crisis requires co-ordinated digital response

This article is a part of a series in which the Financial Times asks leading commentators and policymakers what to expect from a post-Covid-19 future

The writer is chief executive of Microsoft

Society’s deepest concerns are rooted right now in two connected questions: how do we protect public health and how can we promote an economic recovery that is inclusive? A third question is becoming more important because intensive use of technology has become so central to the other two: how do we preserve the privacy and cyber security needed for trustworthy computing? The past two months have seen digitisation progression that would ordinarily take two years generated by the demands of remote working and the need for accurate data and intelligence.

Neither the public nor the private sector alone can provide the answers. The challenges we face demand an unprecedented alliance between business and government. Too often we celebrate the ideal of a maverick working alone in a garage solving all our hard problems. We do need those mavericks, but we also need more co-ordinated combinations of government and industry that respond and innovate. That’s true for this pandemic and it is true for global warming, homelessness and other pressing concerns.

As a software platform and tools company, we at Microsoft view ourselves as digital first responders when the true first responders call from the front lines. Microsoft works for the heroes who are putting their lives at risk and must bring them everything we have to offer.

Here’s what I mean. In healthcare, data is an indispensable tool for decision-making. We’re working at every level of government to help standardise data, provide it for healthcare workers and to support scientific efforts to discover treatments and vaccines.

Working remotely is a new reality. The sheer number of appointments and meetings taking place on our Teams platform means greater productivity and access to greater volumes of intelligence. We’ve seen a new daily record of 2.7bn meeting minutes in one day, up 200 per cent from 900m on March 16, when falling securities markets shook the world. The UK’s National Health Service, the Cleveland Clinic and others are using our platform for virtual visits, consultations between isolated patients and their families and, sadly, end of life video calls. New doctors are taking the Hippocratic oath using Flipgrid, our video sharing tool.

Telemedicine is skyrocketing. A health network in Pennsylvania uses our video conferencing platform to communicate with patients most vulnerable to Covid-19. Seattle hospitals are using our tools to manage bed counts and inventory of critical supplies and share information with others in the region. And the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention used our services to build a health bot that quickly assesses the symptoms and risk factors for people asking about infection.

Technology is accelerating the search for a vaccine and treatments. We are helping to create an open, machine-readable data set of all scientific literature on Covid-19. We have expanded our partnership with Adaptive Biotechnologies to map the immune system’s response to coronavirus, and will make the data set freely accessible to speed the development of treatments. And scientists are using GitHub, our developer platform, to power a distributed computing project that uses volunteers’ personal computers to assist researchers developing potential therapeutics.

Looking ahead, economic recovery must be inclusive, allowing every country, industry and citizen to prosper. Cloud-based products and services are keeping businesses, governments and non-profits functioning, and helping small businesses serve their customers and compete. Broadband is needed everywhere to support vulnerable populations.

Education and skills development must be a centrepiece of our efforts to recover. Schools and universities around the world are turning to tech platforms for remote learning. The University of Bologna recently moved 90 per cent of courses for 80,000 students online within three days. Not bad for a 900-year-old institution. A Japanese elementary school hosted its graduation on Minecraft, building a virtual assembly hall and seating to maintain the sense of community and belonging so important in times like this.

Finally, trust and security are more important than ever. We must all prioritise the protection of healthcare systems from cyber attacks. In addition, more kids are online than ever, so Microsoft is doubling down on digital safety. We’re committed to protecting privacy and building ethical artificial intelligence.

Accurate information and resources are always essential, especially during a global pandemic. LinkedIn Learning and Bing are providing data and life-saving information. We’re working with Facebook, Google, Twitter and our customers to help elevate authoritative content and combat fraud and misinformation about the virus.

It is a societal failure when we undervalue institutions and the critical services they provide. What we need is citizens and customers to demand co-ordination and partnership across sectors.

What’s happening in Seattle, the first US city affected by the coronavirus outbreak, provides a glimpse. A public-private alliance of the region’s largest employers, Challenge Seattle, became the town square for sharing data and best practices, managing the crisis and planning our return to work. Partnerships between business, government non-profit and academia are essential to flattening the infection curve everywhere, and recovery will require an enduring, vigilant effort.

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