When it comes to the coronavirus pandemic, AI systems are capable of processing large amounts of data to find treatments and reduce spread. MDmetrix and TransformativeMed are two Seattle-based start-ups that are using cutting-edge technology to help hospitals across the nation (including University of Washington Medicine and Harborview Medical Center in Seattle). The companies’ software helps clinicians better understand how certain patients respond to certain treatments. Such systems are able to gauge the average time between person-to-person vs. community spread of the disease.

New machine-learning technology can generate “feature importance” plots, which can be used to determine possible reasons for geographical variances in outbreak. Highly sophisticated models involve feature-importance plots: graphs that show which elements may be contributing to the differences in cases and fatalities. So far, latitude and longitude are showing up as having relevance on the tendency for COVID-19 to propagate. AI is a boon to epidemiology because it can notice things that humans can’t; which can come in very handy for understanding contagions.

A program at Boston Children’s Hospital known as “HealthMap” has used AI technology to identify a growing cluster of unexplained pneumonia cases; and it has consistently done so before human researchers. It was able to use the same technology to identify the earliest signs of the corona-virus outbreak. It did so by mining in Chinese language and local news media like WeChat, Weibo, and Baidu. The AI was then able to discern contagion patterns in China’s gigantic population…and beyond.

HealthMap drew on the expertise of researchers from universities around the world. Combing the web to create a detailed list of cases across the entire globe requires legions of dedicated personnel; yet this monumental task can be undertaken with technology that makes use of the latest in machine-learning.

The data generated by HealthMap has been made public so that it can be parsed by scientists looking for links between the disease and certain populations. Such information can also help officials formulate effective containment measures. The accumulated data can then be combined with data on human movements (gleaned from Baidu in China) to see how population movement affected the spread of the virus in China; and how effective certain containment measures ended up being.

HealthMap has continued to track the spread of corona-virus throughout the outbreak, using its “smart” technology to project its spread across the world by time and location. This reminds us of the vital role AI can play in dealing with pandemics.

While salutary, AI’s role in tracking the pandemic have led to concerns for anonymity. While some countries are tracking individual suspected patients and their contacts, Austria, Belgium, Italy, and the U.K. are collecting anonymized data to study the movement of people in a more general manner. This option provides governments with the ability to track the movement of large groups, yet minimizes the risk of infringing data privacy rights.

Amidst all these amazing–and useful–monitoring capabilities, privacy still matters. Personal data that is collected to track the propagation of ANY contagion must not be re-used for alternate (i.e. non-medical) purposes. The data here is being processed for public health, which can be easily exploited by ill-intentioned actors. This concern has prompted the EU to establish the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation).

There needs to be a statute of limitations on surveillance / tracking. The present pandemic will eventually come to an end. When it does, national authorities will be obligated to scale back their newly-acquired monitoring capabilities. Alas, temporary measures have a habit of outlasting the emergencies for which they were initially implemented. We must ensure that these exceptional capabilities have some sort of “sunset clause”; and do not become the new norm…lest technology be re-appropriated for dubious purposes at some point in the future.