What Role Can Computing Play in Battling the COVID-19 Pandemic?

BLOG: Heidelberg Laureate Forum

Laureates of mathematics and computer science meet the next generation
Heidelberg Laureate Forum

How can computing technology impact global health, particularly with regards to the COVID-19 pandemic? 2018 ACM Prize in Computing winner Shwetak Patel addressed this question on the second day of the Virtual Heidelberg Laureate Forum (HLF) 2020. Patel, an entrepreneur and professor of computer science at the University of Washington, won the 2018 Prize for “contributions to creative and practical sensing systems for sustainability and health.” 

Shwetak Patel discusses paradigm shifts in health

During his presentation, Patel highlighted a few of the use cases of computing technology on healthcare: for instance, AI has improved screening and diagnostic capabilities by reading X-rays and radiology scans and the ubiquity of mobile phones makes them a great option for health sensing and point of care diagnostics. Patel and his colleagues have developed a number of innovative health applications that are designed to be used with standard mobile phones. One such example is Bilicam, an app that can monitor jaundice in babies using a smartphone camera. Another is Osteoapp, which emits a sound from a smartphone that causes a vibration in the bones. The app can then tell if the resulting vibration frequency indicates a healthy or unhealthy bone structure.

Shwetak Patel discusses cough monitoring for tuberculosis

Patel has also worked on an application called CoughSense that monitors a user’s cough through a mobile phone microphone. This app has been used to monitor the recovery of tuberculosis patients and make sure they are not developing secondary infections. Patel said his grad students have begun applying this cough monitoring technology to COVID patients as well. Read more about his work on mobile cough monitoring systems here.

Shwetak Patel discusses cough monitoring for COVID

Other technological solutions like contact tracing could be valuable in the battle against COVID. In order to know how the virus is spreading we will need to process a large volume of public health data, deploy and interpret rapid testing, and track and follow-up with individuals. Patel mentioned the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), an independent global health research center at the University of Washington, for their work capturing global health data to help improve policy and decision-making. IHME has a wealth of data and projections related to the COVID pandemic available on their website

While this kind of data collection can prove valuable it is not without downsides. During the Q&A, a young researcher asked Patel about the ethical challenges of the large scale collection of healthcare data. Patel responded that security and privacy are paramount and that researchers need to think about what data they are collecting — sometimes researchers may collect data without a clear plan for the use of that particular data, but Patel argued that we should only collect data that will be valuable for the particular outcome you are trying to achieve.  about what we are doing with the data. We can not just collect something and then figure out what to do with it later — we need to know if the data actually does what we think it will. Additionally, researchers should consider whether the value of the data outweighs the privacy concerns. Transparency is also very important. It needs to be clear to the users how the data is being handled and what it will be used for. 

Last year I had a chance to interview Shwetak Patel on the Catalyzing Computing podcast, the official podcast of the Computing Research Association’s (CRA) Computing Community Consortium (CCC). Listen to that episode here to learn more about how he got started in computer science and his thoughts on entrepreneurship, building a team, and the future of smart health systems.

Watch the full presentation from Shwetak Patel at the Virtual HLF 2020 here

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Khari Douglas is the Senior Program Associate for Engagement for the Computing Community Consortium (CCC), a standing committee within the Computing Research Association (CRA). In this role, Khari interacts with members of the computing research community and policy makers to organize visioning workshops and coordinate outreach activities. He is also the host and producer of the Catalyzing Computing podcast.

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