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In the back-end of the Covid-19 fight, big data works silently

Technology developers are working at breakneck speed for solutions, making officials at the state-run policy think-tank, Niti Aayog, picky.
Federal authorities are reaping its fullest potential in fighting a pandemic that has infected 56,342 people so far.(AFP file photo. Representative image)
Updated on May 08, 2020 09:32 PM IST
Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByAnisha Dutta and Zia Haq

“We are now at the bottom of the peak,” says Dr Deepak Agrawal, professor of neurosciences at New Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). What he means is that the Covid-19 pandemic in India hasn’t reached a stage in which the number of cases multiplies exponentially. And India, he said, shouldn’t reach a crisis point like the US did, when the fight against Covid-19 was hindered by a critical shortage of ventilators that meant doctors had to decide who among a myriad patients needed to be put on one.

Agrawal is the co-inventor, along with robotics engineer Divakar Vaish, of the world’s smallest full intensive care unit portable ventilator. It runs on an Android platform and is already in use at ICUs in AIIMS, the country’s most reputed public hospital.

The device, with 600 installations, is proving handy in the fight against Covid-19. To be sure, the share of Covid-19 patients needing a ventilator right now remains small in India, Agrawal said.

Behind the scenes, India’s fight against the coronavirus is a high-tech battle, thanks to the country’s vanguard software services industry. Federal authorities are reaping its fullest potential in fighting a pandemic that has infected 56,342 people so far.

Technology developers are working at breakneck speed for solutions, making officials at the state-run policy think-tank, Niti Aayog, picky.


The story starts with low-cost ventilators and goes all the way to artificial intelligence (AI) applications and drone-monitored social distancing, a review by the interministerial empowered group no. 6 (EG 6) shows. EG 6, one of the several federal panels formed to contain the spread of Covid-19, is headed by Niti Aayog’s CEO Amitabh Kant and responsible for leveraging technologies against Covid-19.

A dystopian scenario

For arriving employees at Fastrek, a courier company in Hyderabad, the first point of reporting isn’t the supervisor, but an automated thermal scanner. It’s a dystopic scene. Masked employees stand face-to-face before a robot that records temperatures. Such screening is essential to catching the coronavirus infection early.

Similarly, Gurugram-based Staqu Technologies has installed AI-enabled thermal imaging cameras for screening essential services workers in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. Staqu Technologies’s built-in thermal device can measure body temperature from a distance of up to 10 metres and prints workers’ entry passes.

Asimov Robotics’s “Karmi-bot” is trialling medicine dispensing duties at isolation wards in hospitals. It can even conduct video calls with caregivers. “These are just a few of the innovators who are taking the fight to the pandemic,” said Kant.

In India’s Covid-19 fightback, big-data analysts sit silently at the back end. “Data and technology are the biggest warriors in the fight against Covid-19. And one of the things they can do is recommend the extent of lockdown on a hyperlocal level in a granular manner. Such a level of complex decision making is impossible to make without the use of data,” says Ashwin Srivastava, the CEO of Sapio, an AI solutions firm.

The authorities have carved up the country’s districts into hotspots, non-hotspots, red, orange and green zones, depending on their vulnerability and Covid-19 case counts.

Sapio Umbrella’s lockdown platform, which uses big data technology, claims to provide an optimum plan for lockdowns, down to the village level that can be extrapolated to larger areas.

Privacy concerns

The government’s Aarogya Setu, a contact tracing app, reached 80 million downloads in just over 13 days, making it the world’s fastest downloaded app, according to Kant.

Smartphone tools have become popular globally for tracking people for Covid-19. As surveillance goes viral in India, like elsewhere, it has set off demand for privacy preserving solutions.

“Everything is presented as though it is an inevitable trade-off,” said Prasanna S, a lawyer who has voiced concern over privacy violations in the fight against Covid. “If the government asks us to part of with our privacy, then there needs to be rigour and hard empirical basis. For instance, there should be evidence to say that a specific application is going to be safe and has a 50% chance of flattening the curve,” he said.

In the absence of a vaccine, Gupta says, the right technology is critical to fight the worst pandemic in a century. Federal officials are gung-ho about the support they have received from technology developers, who see future business potential.

“If the results are so encouraging in the health sector, then with adequate support and a robust regulatory framework, this can be replicated across most sectors, helping India become self-sufficient and the nerve centre for growth and capability,” says Kant.

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