Coronavirus and tech responsibility

As we live through the Covid-19 crisis and assess the significant changes it has brought, there’s a growing view that we may want to make some of these more permanent. Technology has been at the heart of our response with media and technology companies quickly drawing on deep reserves of innovation and ingenuity to support the biggest and most sudden societal upheaval in a generation. From tracking the virus to helping to keep us well and happy, responses have been wide-ranging and varied.

Whilst we know this can never be an exhaustive process, we are tracking some of these and logging them over the course of the crisis and musing on what we might learn and take on into the era post lockdown. We’ve looked at this under the BBC’s three tenets of informing, educating and entertaining, and while we’re aware of the significant amount of work being done inside the corporation we've focused mainly on what we’ve learned from outside.

In the information field we’ve seen social media companies and others make active attempts to remove Covid-19 misinformation or alert users to false claims. Facebook has used overlays to highlight fake news posts. Twitter has removed tweets from politicians and even world leaders while WhatsApp are limiting message spread to try to limit the dissemination of fake stories. NewsGuard and BT partnered with DCMS to raise awareness of a free tool to help the UK public identify fake news and learn about the dangers of COVID-19 misinformation. Other tech companies are reportedly working with the Cabinet Office counter-misinformation unit. Social media companies have also acted to boost trusted news & public health sources. Some have also made health advice and hyperlinks to the WHO or NHS prominent on the home screen or during advert breaks. New information tools are emerging such as thes WHO bot on WhatsApp and initiatives such as TikTok’s #SafeHands challenge. There’s been a focus on making information universally available – offering access to key services for free, for example. UK mobile networks agreed to offer ‘data free’ access to the NHS website. And with news organisations suffering because of a loss of advertising revenue, Facebook announced $100m of support via its journalism project.

In education, a vast array of online resources to help home-educators have been made available online, from fitness programmes to art instruction. Premium services such as Carol Vorderman’s maths course have been offered for free. Microsoft’s streaming service Mixer added an education category and of course the BBC’s major Bitesize initiative has offered new resources as the lockdown continues into the new school term.

There’s been a veritable entertainment bonanza with theatres and other arts providers offering free access to a wide range of content. New media formats have hit the mainstream such as ITV’s virtual Grand National (with a cycling format to follow). Live streamed concerts, talk-shows, plays and gaming have taken off - some for charitable purposes- StreamAid on Twitch for example. To date, more than 38 million people have watched Andrea Bocelli’s free online Easter concert from Milan’s Duomo. To cope with the uptick in bandwidth needed, media companies have reduced streaming quality to reduce strain on networks (Netflix, Disney+, Apple TV). Community and conferencing apps like Houseparty and Zoom have also seen huge growth and been used imaginatively to create events such as virtual choral and orchestral performances.

Separately we looked at the response to mapping the crisis itself. Amazon, Microsoft and Palantir - as well as London-based Faculty AI – are working with Government to model the healthcare response to the pandemic and provide interactive dashboards for the NHS.  It is unclear to what extent UK mobile phone operators will supply user anonymous location and usage data to the Government to create movement maps, reportedly with a 12- to 24-hour delay, to discover whether the public are abiding by lockdown rules (an initiative which ICO has approved). Google and Apple announced that they would partner to develop interoperable APIs to facilitate user tracing via Bluetooth. Public Health authorities could then draw on this technology to release tracing apps: a NHS app is under development. Big questions remain about user take-up and privacy (as well as the availability of necessary testing). Meanwhile, on a local level, a Covid-19 Tech Response (CTR) group was set up to co-ordinate the supply of technology talent. They’ve brought 400 volunteers together, many of them supporting local Mutual Aid groups.

In terms of how the BBC might learn from the emerging initiatives – above and beyond the excellent work it’s doing with Bitesize and events such as the Big Night In we looked at:

Shared experiences - In isolation, more than ever, we’ve sought experiences which unite us from friendship group Zoom quizzes to remote family meals. Co-watching (finding ways to congregate around a particular TV experience, live or VOD at the same time) was a trend that the BBC's Blue Room team picked up at CES from one of the exhibitors Dabby. If we think this will be a behaviour that outlasts lockdown, should we develop co-watching/listening functionality as a way of boosting our mission of bringing the nation together?

Dialogues - The BBC has a long history in connecting communities - an excellent example being local radio phone–ins. We’ve often struggled to find the digital iteration of this with the demise of message boards, and user comments on stories can feel thin and combative. Local communities are organising via Facebook or Whatsapp groups, but could we do more to be a digital forum for community dialogue to link up volunteers, offer information on local resources and host conversations? And should we explore machine learning solutions to help with the otherwise overwhelming moderation task?

Mental Health tools - Citing WHO guidance, our own mental health content has encouraged audiences to limit time spent reading or watching news on the pandemic, which can prompt anxiety and stress. The BBC news site and app are offering curations on ‘long reads’ or more uplifting personal stories, and other news providers are separating ‘in other news’ sections or offering Covid free newsletters. What might we do in response to this?

On the other side of the coin we looked at an area where we felt caution might be needed. Data has the potential to model, limit and help solve this crisis, and urgent new public/private partnerships are springing up. The BBC could play a role in this and longer term developments. We need to weigh the trade-offs: providing trusted resources for our audiences and pulling together in a moment of national crisis versus privacy & consent issues, and the risk of compromising audience trust and our independence. Our expertise with partnerships will be tested like never before but we have much to contribute from our research and experience with privacy-preserving technologies.