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Pandemics and wars: There’s an app for that

The latest threats to humankind inspired people with innovative thinking and resilient mindsets to come up with clever technology fixes.
Read time 3min 10sec

In the early days of the Ukraine invasion, IT enthusiasts on quadbikes helped prevent a colossal 65km Russian tank convoy from reaching Ukraine’s capital. Armed with drones and night-vision goggles, they ambushed the tanks and supply points during a series of night raids.

Blocked by wreckage and paralysed by fuel shortages, the 15 000 soldiers and artillery was prevented from reaching Kyiv, which could have been a tipping point in the invasion.

The war against COVID has put doctors and hospitals on the front line, as the virus has peaked in a series of devastating waves and new variants have threatened the success of vaccines. It seems the tide is turning and the world is slowly returning to (a new) normal but so too, in this conflict, innovation and tech communities rose to the occasion in support of medicine and over-burdened hospitals.

Innovative events like Hack The Crisis and EU vs VIRUS connected thousands of people who prototyped solutions for farming, remote working and one team even developed a smart face shield for doctors.

A looming ventilator shortage in 2020 resulted in hundreds of open source projects around the world like Vent-Con and the Emergency Pandemic Ventilator at the University Of Calgary.

Inspired by these projects, I even built an emergency wooden ventilator in my own workshop to test a design using materials available in most homes, or that are easy to purchase.

These open source projects produced nearly 50 million supplies during the 2020 COVID-19 supply chain crisis and many hobbyist designs have since become commercially viable.

A recently developed solution is ResApp, which can diagnose COVID using the sound of someone’s cough. A clinical trial showed better results than even the real-world measured sensitivity of rapid antigen tests.

A looming ventilator shortage in 2020 resulted in hundreds of open source projects around the world.

Peer-reviewed scientific research on coughing patterns in late 2021 led to the development of machine learning algorithms, which were trained using this research data. These algorithms are used by the app to analyse the waveform of the cough; all from the socially-distanced safety and convenience of your phone.

Innovation in the service of humanity is not new, but disruptive technology trends like artificial intelligence, digitisation, machine learning and data science have accelerated this trend. The cycle of “prototype to product” is becoming shorter and solutions are highly sophisticated. But such innovation also requires continuous learning, experimentation and a culture of failing fast.

The world’s richest man, Elon Musk, is an evangelist of failing and scaling. SpaceX had many launchpad failures and Tesla’s market-dominating technology was developed through costly experimentation.

Musk also helped Ukraine during the invasion, sending Starlink internet kits to help its citizens communicate during the invasion. Russia tried to jam this service but Musk’s engineers were able to resist the hackers and keep Ukraine online.

Tanks in the streets and deadly viruses in our homes are not new threats to our way of life. But the invasion of Ukraine and the COVID pandemic were met with some brand new technology, used by people with very innovative thinking and resilient mindsets.

From quad bikers in Ukraine to garage hobbyists and tech billionaires, our human spirit continues to rise to defend humanity and say, “there’s an app for that.”

* Peter Alkema helps lead digital transformation at FirstRand. This article is written in his personal capacity.

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