Connect with us


Covid apps could get a second chance under Biden—but it will take work



As the Biden administration ramps up, it inherits soaring cases and a muddled vaccine rollout— so it’s reasonable to wonder what else can possibly slow the spread of covid-19. Some strategies in the administration’s covid plan are basics, like calling on people to wear masks, doing more testing, and communicating more clearly. But digital technology gets a nod, too: tucked into a list of promises and plans is a vow to look at state-level contact tracing efforts and scale up what’s working. That could mean building a new national app based on what’s succeeded at the state level, supporting more states in developing their own apps, or some combination of tactics.

National leadership on contact tracing and exposure notification apps would be a big change for the US. In many other countries, national apps rolled out last spring, but in the US, apps emerged unevenly from state health agencies that struggled to cope with the demands of the pandemic and the complexity of tracing technology. And although programmers and health experts agree that exposure notification apps are not enough to box in the virus, renewed attention from the federal government could mean they get a second chance to be part of the broad response to the pandemic.

Although we don’t yet know what the Biden administration will do, experts say there are a few approaches that could help apps fulfill their potential.

Have a unified vision—but that doesn’t have to mean a single app

Until now, the federal response hasn’t supported states in building technology to fight covid. In fact, Washington may even have slowed down individual states’ progress on apps; according to reporting from Jacobin, officials in Pennsylvania had to work around silence from the CDC when they were trying to get their service up and running.

Although 22 states had rolled out exposure notification by the end of 2020, according to our covid-19 tracing tracker, others never even attempted it. Some states have wavered for months on whether to deploy the technology. Illinois, for example, faced a sharp increase in covid-19 cases between October and November, but officials hesitated over the possibility of using an app, saying they had privacy concerns.

NearForm, a software development company from Waterford, Ireland, built the app used by the Irish government, which has also been adopted by several US states. Larry Breen, the company’s chief commercial officer, says the smart approach wouldn’t be to introduce a single, centralized national app. Instead, he suggests, the White House could provide resources that local officials need to make their own apps, or help them get more widely adopted.

It’s about “pulling away some of the politics around it,” says Breen.

Make sure the technology works across state lines

Because most state-level apps were developed separately, they don’t always work across borders, not even in neighboring states. The virus, of course, doesn’t care where you are, so this is a major problem. To get around this, states have needed to form their own alliances—for example, New York joined with New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania.

Some back-end infrastructure built by the Association of Public Health Laboratories allows for apps from about 20 states and territories to work together so far. But this system still doesn’t cover the entire country. The Biden administration will need to coordinate a solution that works for all states, and make sure local health authorities have the information they need to accurately communicate with the public about the technology. 

Take a global approach

Once global travel becomes easier, the technology will need to work across international borders, too. While the federal government develops a national contact tracing plan, Breen says, it should also work with foreign governments to ensure that travelers can track covid exposure with an app they’re used to, rather than having to switch to the local version.

That’s especially important as we learn that some countries, like Singapore, are rolling back freedoms and privacy. If US travelers could still use their US app, they could potentially keep their data out of Singapore’s central system.

Although some countries in Europe already have cross-border exposure apps up and running, getting every country in the world on a global system would be a tough—if not impossible—task.

“You need to convey that as the government, you’re here to help; you’re not here to harm.”

Cyd Harrell

But the US could choose to lead, and one way to get there would be directing more money to public health technology, period. The Linux Foundation is already working on boosting interoperability for covid-related technologies, and Jenny Wanger, director of programs for Linux Foundation Public Health, says funding is part of the challenge. She says the sector has been underfunded for decades, which means that “there are lots of systems that don’t work very well together.” She adds, “The fax machine still reigns supreme. Everyone knows we can do things much better, but the only way to do that is change the business model.” 

There’s a long road ahead, and no international approach or negotiation can be settled on a state-by-state basis, Breen says. Instead, it “needs to be driven on a national level.”

Build trust and improve transparency with states and with the public

Mixed messages and misinformation about the virus coming from the White House have battered public trust in science and medicine, including attitudes toward contact tracing apps. But Stephanie Mayfield, who directs US covid programs for the nonprofit Resolve to Save Lives, is optimistic about the Biden administration’s ability to restore trust.

“We’re hopeful in the world of public health that there will be transparency, there will be candor about this virus, there will be evidence- and science-based leadership going forward,” says Mayfield. “We’re hopeful that uniform leadership will help our nation drive down [cases].”

Earning trust isn’t easy, especially with at least 40% of Americans already wary of sharing personal information with public health officials. And historically marginalized groups may distrust the government for any number of good reasons. Mayfield says a national push could support health providers in making recommendations to local communities. 

“In general with health care, building trust is at the level of the provider,” she says. 

Cyd Harrell, author of A Civic Technologist’s Practice Guide, says trust is critical in getting people to use apps and other technologies created by the government. “Especially for more vulnerable people,” she says, “you need to convey that as the government, you’re here to help; you’re not here to harm. And you’re respecting some of those key aspects of people’s humanity—whatever abilities they might have in terms of reading or language.”

Harrell says this basic process of earning trust is not just about the underlying technology but also about implementing it thoughtfully. Otherwise, “people inevitably feel like you don’t care about them,” she says. “Tech can’t lift up all that communication work that you need to establish trust during a scary time.”

—Additional reporting by Lindsay Muscato

This story is part of the Pandemic Technology Project, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation.

Continue Reading


What China’s Big Tech CEOs propose at the annual parliament meeting



The annual meetings of the Chinese parliament and its advisory body are underway in Beijing this week. Top executives from some of China’s largest tech firms are among the thousands of delegates who attend and put forward their opinions. Here is a look at what the tech bosses are proposing for China’s digital economy.

Pony Ma

More regulatory scrutiny is needed for the country’s budding internet economy, Tencent’s founder and CEO Pony Ma says in one of his proposals, according to a report from the state-backed People’s Posts and Telecommunications News. As a delegate of the National People’s Congress, Ma has submitted over 50 proposals during the parliament meetings over nine consecutive years, said the report.

Specifically, Ma calls for strict governance on peer-to-peer finance, bike-sharing, long-term apartment rental and online grocery group-buying, fledgling areas that have also seen businesses go bust amid cash-hemorrhaging competition.

Ma’s comment comes at a time when regulators are tightening their grips on the country’s tech giants. In recent months, the government has launched probes into Alibaba and other tech firms over anti-competitive practices and proposed a sweeping data law that will limit how platforms collect user information.

Lei Jun

In China’s grand plan to move up the manufacturing value chain, Xiaomi, which makes smartphones and a slew of other hardware devices, has been keen to help factories upgrade.

Xiaomi CEO Lei Jun, a delegate of the NPC, recognizes China is late to smart manufacturing, lacks home-grown innovation and is overreliant on foreign technologies, he says in his proposal. Research and development efforts should be directed to key components such as cutting-edge sensors and precision reducers for factory robots, he says.

China also lacks the talent for advancing factory innovation, Lei points out, thus government policies should support corporations in attracting foreign talent and cultivating collaboration between industries and academia.

Robin Li

As part of its artificial intelligence pivot, Baidu, China’s biggest search engine service, has invested heavily in smart driving tech. Regulation is a major hurdle for autonomous driving firms like Baidu that need large volumes of data to train algorithms, and the rate at which testing permits are issued varies greatly across regions.

Robin Li, CEO of Baidu and a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, urges regulators to be more innovative and pave the way for legal and at-scale commercialization of autonomous driving. A mechanism should be created for various government agencies, industry players and academia to collectively promote the commercial deployment of autonomous driving.

In addition, Li calls for more senior-friendly technologies, greater public access to government data, and better online protection for underage users in China.

Continue Reading


Indonesian logistics startup SiCepat raises $170 million Series B



SiCepat, an end-to-end logistics startup in Indonesia, announced today it has raised a $170 million Series B funding round. Founded in 2014 to provide last-mile deliveries for small merchants, the company has since expanded to serve large e-commerce platforms, too. Its services now also cover warehousing and fulfillment, middle-mile logistics and online distribution.

Investors in SiCepat’s Series B include Falcon House Partners; Kejora Capital; DEG (the German Development Finance Institution); Telkom Indonesia’s investment arm MDI Ventures; Indies Capital; Temasek Holdings subsidiary Pavilion Capital; Tri Hill; and Daiwa Securities. The company’s last funding announcement was a $50 million Series A in April 2019.

In a press statement, The Kim Hai, founder and chief executive officer of SiCepat’s parent company Onstar Express, said the funding will be used to “further fortify SiCepat’s position as the leading end-to-end logistics service provider in the Indonesian market and potentially to explore expansion to other markets in Southeast Asia.” SiCepat claims to be profitable already and that it was able to fulfill more than 1.4 million packages per day in 2020.

The logistics industry in Indonesia is highly fragmented, which means higher costs for businesses. At the same time, demand for deliveries is increasing thanks to the growth of e-commerce, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

SiCepat is one of several Indonesian startups that have raised funding recently to make the supply chain and logistics infrastructure more efficient. For example, earlier this week, supply chain SaaS provider Advotics announced a $2.75 million round. Other notable startups in the space include Kargo, founded by a former Uber Asia executive, and Waresix.

SiCepat focuses in particular on e-commerce and social commerce, or people who sell goods through their social media networks. In statement, Kejora Capital managing partner Sebastian Togelang, said the Indonesian e-commerce market is expected to grow at five-year compounded annual growth rate of 21%, reaching $82 billion by 2025.

“We believe SiCepat is ideally positioned to serve customers from e-commerce giants to uprising social commerce players which contribute an estimated 25% to the total digital commerce economy,” he added.

Continue Reading


InsurGrid raises pre-seed financing to help modernize legacy insurance agents



Insurance agents spend hours handling paperwork and grabbing client information over the phone. A new seed-stage startup, InsurGrid, has developed a software solution to help ease the process, and make it easier for agents to serve existing clients — and secure new ones.

InsurGrid gives agents a personalized platform to collect information from clients, such as date of birth, driver’s license information and policy declaration. This platform helps agents avoid sitting on long calls or managing back-to-back emails, and instead gives them one spot to understand how all their different clients function. It is starting with property and casualty management.

The startup integrates with 85 insurance carriers, serving as the software layer instead of the provider. Using the InsurGrid platform, insurers can ask clients to upload information and within seconds be registered as a policyholder. This essentially turns into a living Rolodex that insurers can use to access information on the account, and offer quotes on a faster rate.

Image Credits: InsurGrid

There’s a monetary benefit in providing better service. Eden Insurance, a customer of InsurGrid, said that people who submit information through the platform converted at an 82% higher rate than those who don’t. Jeremy Eden, the agency owner of Eden Insurance, said they were able to show consumers that its plan was $300 cheaper than its existing rate.

At the heart of InsurGrid is a bet from the founding team that legacy insurance agents aren’t going anywhere. Co-founder/CEO Chase Beach pointed out that the majority of the $684 billion of annual property and casualty insurance premiums in the United States is distributed by approximately 800,000 agents working in 16,000 brokerages. So far, InsurGrid works with more than 150 of those agencies.

When asked if InsurGrid ever had plans to offer its own insurance, similar to insurtech giants Hippo, Lemonade and Root, Beach said that it is solely working on innovating around the sales process for now. He said that these big companies, which have either recently gone public or are planning to, still rely on agents to be successful.

“Instead of us replacing the insurance agent, what if we gave them that same level of technology of a Hippo or large carrier,” Beach said. “And provide them with the digital experiences so they can compete in 2021.”

As time goes on, he sees insurance agents taking the same role that financial advisors or real estate agents take: “very much involved in the process because they are that expert.”

Other startups that have popped up in this space include Gabi, Trellis and Canopy Connect. The differentiator, the team sees, is that Beach comes from a 144-year-old insurance legacy, giving him key insights on how to sell to agents in a successful and effective way. It is starting with sales, but expect InsurGrid to expand to other parts of the insurance process as well.

To help them compete with new and old startups, InsurGrid recently raised $1.3 million in pre-seed financing to help it fulfill its goal to be the “underdog for the underdogs,” Beach said. Investors include Engineering Capital, Hustle Fund, Vess Capital, Sahil Lavingia and Trevor Kienzle.

Continue Reading