In this unprecedented crisis, where half of the planet was placed "under a glass dome", where thousands of deaths are still counting, multiple IoT (Internet of Things) projects and mobile applications have been created to help resolve the situation, in the midst of the emergency. Some of these solutions were actively criticised, while others failed to fully meet with the challenges of the crisis, even though they could have had the potential to do so.
The objective of this article is not to evaluate the good or bad management of this crisis in order to begin yet another witch hunt. On the contrary, the objective is to assess our shortcomings with composure in order to build better management and anticipation of pandemics together.
COVID-19, revealing our shortcomings
One of our weaknesses was our great difficulty in reacting quickly because of our lack of information and France's extreme dependence on imports. As such, the economic crisis preceded and even amplified the health crisis for two reasons.
Firstly, long-term austerity policies in healthcare have resulted in a reduction of the number of beds in hospitals and have resulted in a significant impact on the capacity to receive patients affected by the virus. Secondly, France has lacked basic equipment for patients, caregivers, health workers and those in retirement homes: masks, gowns, gloves, hand sanitiser, respirators, screening tests, medicines, etc. Not only was the country short on equipment (lack of stocks, neglecting the precautionary principle) but it then proved unable to produce it.
Additionally, another of our shortcomings was a generalised belief in a blissful technological solutionism without validating the real uses with the main parties concerned, beforehand. One example among others is that of preparation for the end of lockdown. In May 2020, the French Parliament (the National Assembly and the Senate) decided to deploy the “StopCovid” app to track people who might be affected by Covid-19. The intention was laudable, but the obstacles were numerous. Experts had pointed out the technical limitations of Bluetooth when it comes to geolocating individuals, and we also failed to take note of the Singaporean experience, where a similar app had already failed. Result: with its 350,000 active users - i.e. 0.5% of the French population - on D+10 after the end of lockdown, we cannot speak of a "clear success" of the app (source: Le Monde, 10 June 2020).
Management of time, people flows and critical equipment therefore comes at a high price in times of crisis. And we have paid for it. Facing such a shock, it is now up to us to build tomorrow's world today, with new development models.
Building together by leveraging AI and IoT
To deal with a massive and global phenomenon, having real-time visibility of the location of critical infrastructure and people without impeding our fundamental rights is both vital and strategic to our country's economic interests.
Without a doubt, AI is today the best candidate when it comes to optimising complex flow situations (France Stratégie, September 18, 2018).
If we have to both anticipate the number of contaminations and reduce the number of potential deaths, let's take the textbook case of a situation of "optimisation of mask stocks and flows of people in the context of a new global pandemic".
If at a time M, we know there are only 100,000 masks available in an area X, an AI may advise us to separate them into several optimised batches, i.e. to give 10,000 masks to hospital Y, 5,000 to hospital Z, etc. In addition to optimising the geolocation of critical infrastructures, AI coupled with IoT allows us to monitor the number of people visiting the premises and encounters with potentially infected people, while complying with the rules imposed by each country’s data protection regulations and by the GDPR throughout Europe.
In practice, it would be a question of building an AI platform fed by the IoT. The IoT makes it possible to collect and compile "field" data at a low cost from sensors in hospitals, schools, public transport, etc. Therefore, because it is supplied by the IoT, this Artificial Intelligence can optimise the collected data via a dedicated "business" platform to positively guide decisions related to a health crisis. The challenge of mixing AI and IoT is to collect relevant data while minimising the extraction costs in order to focus efforts on aggregating, cross-referencing and mobilising critical data in case of emergency.
Inevitably, to prevent personal interests from overriding uses, the logic must be oriented in a "problem-solving" way with a previously validated economic equation. A government-sponsored consortium and regulation are an imaginable condition to create this information system.
The solution would amount to building a Business Intelligence platform together, powered by an IoT open data approach. We could then create a European data crowdsourcing platform which would contribute to a global source of sovereign data in Europe, processed by an AI.
Towards European digital sovereignty
So far, the solutions we use depend heavily on the American giants, undermining our digital, economic and political sovereignty. However, we can act collectively for a better management of pandemics. To achieve this, we must become more creative. But this shift will not come without suffering.
There is a path we could follow, although it is a more complicated one than the one already mapped out by the GAFA or BATX. To do this, we need to gather our efforts and not look down on our neighbours because they invented a different approach. We should try to build these solutions together, challenging ideas with pragmatism and constructivism, so that they benefit mankind and not just a few men.
Here, we are talking about investments in hundreds of millions of euros to change things and have a real impact on our society. In other words, we do not need the billions the Americans or the Chinese have spent: we simply need to steer away from a passive mindset and bet on Europe’s strengths.
From now on, we can no longer act as if we did not know. On the one hand, the apps deployed by the GAFA and BATX pose a problem of individual data management and dependence on other states. On the other hand, if we do not establish essential equipment management to contain a new crisis, it will hit us even harder. The best way to prepare for it by guaranteeing our security without sacrificing our sovereignty is therefore to combine IoT and AI as part of a major European project.