Corona warriors: How tech titans are helping govts fight the pandemic

Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s war room in Mumbai
Tucked away in a lane in the heart of Bengaluru, lies the historic Balabrooie Guest House. The 200-year-old white bungalow has played host to several notable guests, including Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Rabindranath Tagore. In 2020, it is playing a different role — the Karnataka government has turned the heritage building into a technology-aided “Covid-19 War Room”. 

The war room, which runs round-the-clock, is equipped with large screens that display different dashboards of data and analytics. Key metrics — such as active cases, deaths, high-risk cases and districts and testing information — are put up continuously. And several teams analyse the data to enable better decision making to contain the pandemic.

“The most critical part of the day starts when the data arrives every evening at around 8 pm,” says Dinesh Nory, an engineer at big data and AI firm, Fractal Analytics, which is providing the technological support to the war room. “There have been many days in the last two months when the team was up till 3 am to close any key analysis required, and then was back at work at 7 am,” says Nory.

Fractal Analytics is one among top technology companies such as Intel, Amazon Web Services (AWS), Cisco, IBM and Microsoft, that are collaborating with governments, scientists, developers and health agencies to help India’s fight against Covid-19. The collaborations have now reached fever pitch, given that India has become the fifth worst coronavirus-hit country in the world. 

Fractal Analytics began working for the Karnataka’s war room, as it realised that data-driven decision would be critical in fighting the pandemic. “It was the opportunity of a lifetime. I have been spending three to five hours a day doing just this, as there are very high-stakes for the country,” says Srikanth Velamakanni, co-founder and group CEO, Fractal Analytics.

While two of its engineers are deployed in the war room, they are being supported by a larger team located at different parts of the country. The team is helping integrate different Covid-19 data points such as case information, rate of transmission, hospital preparedness and testing information to generate predictive analytics.

 

“The nation’s data infrastructure isn’t built for a situation of this nature. We have to connect a lot of the data pipelines in order to build algorithms and deploy data science,” says Velamakanni.

The entire project is being run under the aegis of IT industry body Nasscom. Chipmaker Intel is collaborating with Nasscom to build an application ecosystem and multi-cloud back-end infrastructure to enable large-scale Covid-19 diagnostics. This is aimed at predicting outbreaks and improving medical care management.

“While the government has the capacity to reach out to the masses, the private sector is bringing domain expertise and a lot of cutting edge (technologies) in areas like analytics. We are complementing each other,” says Munish Moudgil, senior IAS officer and head of the Covid-19 war room in Karnataka.

Intel is also working with the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and International Institute of Information Technology, Hyderabad (IIIT-H), and deploying its client and server solutions to achieve faster and less expensive Covid-19 testing and coronavirus genome sequencing. This will help in understanding the epidemiology and AI-based risk stratification for patients with co-morbidities, the company said.

“We are taking information from the RT-PCR (reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction, a laboratory test technique), Oxford Nanopore Technologies, and the health conditions of the patients, and putting together an AI-model to enable faster, cheaper and more accurate diagnostics,” says Nivruti Rai, country head, Intel India and vice-president, Data Platforms Group, Intel. “We will continue to develop solutions jointly with the government,” says Rai, who is also the head of Nasscom’s Covid-19 technology task force.

AWS, another member of Nasscom’s task force, has helped set up a Covid-19 data platform for the government of Telangana. The solution deploys more than 100 dashboards, using large volumes of anonymised government and public Covid-related data sets. The platform features a Covid-19 “India Vulnerability Map”, which provides anonymised mobility data at a district-level to enable a holistic view of the pandemic within the state. It also offers more than 10 machine learning models for Covid-19 response to better manage the lockdown and sustainable recovery scenarios in industry zones across the state. These include disease transmission predictions, citizen mobility analytics, situational awareness of the disease spread, and hospital care readiness.

Tech companies are also providing various technology tools to train frontline healthcare workers virtually. Cisco, the computer networking equipment maker, has been working with hospitals across the country and using its video conferencing platform, Webex, to help train nurses and hospital staff in remote locations on handling ventilators, critical care, and so on.  

In Gujarat, for instance, Cisco has connected over 80 government hospitals, which are using Webex to train 4,000 doctors and paramedics in Covid-19 response. The company said that in Karnataka, it is helping the Rajiv Gandhi University of Health Sciences (RGUHS) conduct online training of about 25,000 health professionals. 

To make sure that citizens get reliable information related to the pandemic, IBM is helping government agencies and healthcare organisations use AI to put out critical data and information. The Andhra Pradesh National Health Mission recently launched a Watson virtual agent (called Watson Assistant for Citizens) to provide Covid-related information in English, Telugu and Hindi on its portal.

The Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) has also collaborated with IBM to implement Watson Assistant on its portal to respond to specific queries of front line staff and data entry operators from various testing and diagnostic facilities across the country. “This is helping boost ICMR’s response time and allowing them to concentrate on priorities like developing and updating testing and treatment protocols and guidance,” says Anil Bhasker, business unit leader, analytics platform, IBM India and South Asia.

In Punjab, software giant Microsoft has provided the technology to roll out Cova, a citizen app that offers real-time and authentic information on Covid-19. Cova has two bots integrated into it — an AI-powered Q&A bot, which helps resolve people’s queries quickly and another which enables citizens to conduct a self-assessment test.


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