Connectivity and Openness in the COVID-19 Era

Connectivity and Openness in the COVID-19 Era

This article was originally published on Bruno’s LinkedIn

Many journalists and bloggers use “unprecedented” to describe our current situation. No word is more appropriate. Communities around the world are engaging in an epic struggle to mitigate the spread and impacts of COVID-19. We are indebted beyond reconciliation to healthcare professionals and caregivers working on the front-lines of the pandemic. There is much to learn from the COVID-19 outbreak. In particular, two lessons cannot escape attention: 1) Embracing data science and digital technology is no longer optional for our healthcare systems, and 2) Open collaboration and innovation are essential to #reimaginingmedicine.

Collaboration Between Life Science Companies

It is clear that COVID-19 is not a sequestered issue—it is a global pandemic that has traveled far and wide to impact some of our world’s most vulnerable populations. For this reason, the collaborative efforts of life science companies as they work to minimize and mitigate the overall impact of the novel coronavirus was much needed and unheard-of. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s efforts to pool resources across 15 life science companies is especially notable. This group will share their libraries of resources, which include unique molecular compounds that could potentially turn the tides in the public health sector’s favor. Those molecular libraries have found a home in the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator, a platform developed by the Gates Foundation. Researchers use this tech to quickly identify which compounds and options are most likely to make a positive impact. Combined with accelerated vaccine and therapeutic trials and the combination of data from a multitude of countries and sources, the initiative has the potential to create a step-change on both national and international levels.

Collaboration Between Healthcare Providers and Tech Companies

Stay-at-home and quarantine orders are limiting people’s access to healthcare around the world. For some people,healthcare providers are able to visit them at their home, but this is not an option for most. Where home delivery is not possible, even access to medication is disrupted. Technologies such as home assistants and telemedicine are enabling healthcare providers to reach their most vulnerable patients without making direct, person-to-person contact. Hospitals are using AI combined with sensors for a variety of tasks, from tracking patient temperatures to detecting acute respiratory conditions. These technologies allow patient monitoring without putting healthcare providers at more risk for infection. Providers have utilized drones to reach those who cannot leave their homes whether due to compromised immune systems or mild symptoms and to drop off medical supplies from rural locales in Ghana to cities across the United States. Their service include prescription drugs, medical implements such as swabs and masks, and even COVID-19 testing kits. Organizations, including the World Health Organization, IBM, Oracle, Microsoft, and other tech companies, government agencies, and international health organizations are partnering in building the blockchain-based open data hub called MiPasa. It is poised to enable rapid and precise detection of COVID-19 carriers and infection hotspots around the world.

Health Authorities’ Overall Collaborative Position

As the crisis has played out, health authorities have seen the fruit of their digitalization efforts and are doubling down on these technologies – publishing and advocating positions that favor even further acceleration. The CDC, FDA and WHO, have recognized that digital health technologies can provide powerful tools for public health officials and the public in the management of the COVID-19 response. GermanySwitzerland and many more countries launched a dedicated hackathon in response to COVID-19. The Health Innovation Hub, established by Germany’s Ministry of Health, published a list of trusted telemedicine services. The Mayo Clinic and the Minnesota state health department developed an artificial intelligence-powered tool to determine which areas of the state were most at risk for spreading and contracting COVID-19. The National Institutes of Health’s Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines initiative launched in an unprecedented effort to bring together health agencies and members of the pharmaceutical industry in response to the current and future pandemics.

Connectivity and Openness, the “New Normal”?

As we begin to re-open businesses and schools, we should remember the value of collaboration within the healthcare ecosystem. Resource pooling, information accessibility, and new technologies played an important role in combating COVID-19. As usual, hindsight is “20/20” – it is hard to fathom what prevented us from unleashing this level of collaboration earlier. When we needed to stay physically apart, we saw the urgency to come together to combine our knowledge, skillsets and experience as illustrated above, but also in so many other examples.

These unprecedented times unearthed the need to move beyond the usual calls for open innovation: a need for connectedness, maybe deriving from Joy’s law, “no matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else”. The state of urgency side-showed the prime focus on internal excellence, intellectual property protection and competitive vying and brought together people in totally new ways. I can not help asking, “what if” this connected openness, this #unbossed can-do mindset, were to become the real “new normal”?

How is Digital Marketing is Changing Travel

It’s not just the promise of new scenery that inspires us to travel, but the prospect of change itself. We want our journeys to transform and construct us as individuals, and leave marvelous tales to reminisce upon with friends and family. When online social atmospheres surround us with the the stories, impressions and memories of others, it’s only natural that we crave a remarkable, personalized adventure, on that brings a sense of freshness strong enough to separate us entirely from our day to day grind.

Individualized travel plans are demonstrably preferable to generic vacations, according to 85% of respondents in a study by American Express. This study, and many others like it strongly validate the impression left when browsing travel oriented digital media: that the majority of travelers, regardless of age, do, in fact, prefer to travel on their own terms. Digital marketers are catching on to this push for experience-based personalization in travel, and to a degree, they are actually manufacturing it.

As drivers of the $7.5 trillion tourism industry, online travel advertisers have trillions of incentives to better facilitate specific consumer wishes. Consider how a recent upswing in concert and music festival attendances directly corresponds with a drop in spending on recorded and produced audio; also consider how Coachella’s marketing team engages music fans across over a dozen social media platforms, and uses trackable URLs and data analytics to develop and advertise an interactive app for streamlining logistics and connecting concert attendees.

Coachella’s ad team succeeds in drawing crowds from across the globe because they acknowledged a vital travel fact: unique experience is in, while passive activity is fading in popularity, especially among millennials. By enabling relevant tools, and allying themselves with platforms that paint travel as a type of social capital, to be collected and exchanged among friends and followers, digital marketers insert themselves into the conversation, not as interruptions, but as complementary assistants in facilitating wild dreams of travel.

Big data plays a major role in allowing digital marketers to pinpoint and cultivate vacationers’ travel preferences. According to a report by Selligent, 83% of millennials are willing to allow travel brands to track their digital history, if the tradeoff results in travel options better calibrated to personal tastes.

Travel marketing teams may hire online marketing companies such as Net Conversion, or ActionX, which perform data-oriented services like tracking search keywords to enable targeted advertising. For instance, a customer concerned with pricing who searches for accommodations using keywords such as “cheap” or “budget” might receive banner ads depicting value hotel deals. In this way, advertisers create personalized travel where it may not otherwise exist; without targeted ads, those travelers looking for budget hotels might never have found an option tailored specifically to fit their needs.  

There is an exciting development on the horizon, one which unites AI with big data to metamorphosize travel marketing. The introduction of virtual travel assistants could allow smartphone users to access an automated service (provided by travel companies) for personalized suggestions on local restaurants, attractions, and activities according to predetermined criteria. One survey reveals that 94% of Tripadvisor’s 300 million users already use smartphones to research localized information, and virtual assistants such as Google’s Assistant and Siri were popularized years ago. Combining and simplifying these processes using automated assistance to channel user data, and craft ideal search results seems like a logical next step. Online booking service HotelTonight has already taken the AI initiative, creating a virtual concierge function accessible throughout over 30 cities.

Any marketer can confirm that travel trends exist in a state of flux, however our desire for a more personalized travel experience shows no indication of disappearing; it’s a sentiment constructed by a digital marketing strategy which employs data-based insights to offer unique options, and kept alive by the innate magnetism of the unfamiliar and extraordinary.

Tailored Travel: How Digital Advancements Are Making Your Travel Experience More Unique

Tailored Travel Blog

With a few short clicks, we send electricity traveling through silicone and fiber optics, instantly transferring worlds of info across a journey through a slew of vivid, scenic digital destinations. Every internet user chooses the data with which they interact; each of our unique online preferences treats select pieces of the web to a personalized cruise through the datasphere.

It only makes sense, therefore, that the data we send sailing through cyberspace should treat the travelers among us to a streamlined, personalized trip planning experience. I’m happy to report that the internet is now achieving just that. Thanks to the soaring popularity of online travel services, as well as the birth of travel apps designed to ease the burdens of cost and planning, vacationers and nomads alike now hold in their smart devices a means to manufacture the ultimate getaway.

Digital advances have made it not just possible, but easy for internet-savvy travelers to build unique itineraries which account for tastes in anything from cuisine to nightlife. Want to sip red and backstroke through watery wonderlands in the Mediterranean’s hidden corners for two months? Or maybe you prefer two weeks moving to the mesmerizing, static pulse of Barcelona’s nighttime scene? Even tourists who simply want to witness Rome’s famed sights for a few days can use internet travel tools to locate the perfect custom or pre-designed trips, conserving precious time and energy for what really matters: the trip itself.

Many might picture their dream trip playing out like some kind of wild adventure, where new people and novel situations clash and blend into something truly unforgettable. Online hospitality marketplace Airbnb (which I’ve mentioned briefly before in a previous post) adds a dimension of reality to this ideal; rooted in the philosophy of sharing, Airbnb offers users the opportunity to reserve privately-owned, affordable lodgings in offbeat locations, and pay reasonable fees to participate in unique, fresh activities and locally hosted events.

Ironically enough, by meshing travel with a more traditional form of social intimacy Airbnb actually manages to innovate. According to James Mclure, Airbnb’s country manager for Ireland and the UK, “in Airbnb’s case, technology has also brought tradition into the mainstream. The concept of staying in people’s homes when travelling is not a new one and dates back many centuries, but what technology has been able do is accelerate this to a fast-moving and easily-accessible global phenomenon.”

By cutting commercialization from trip plans and instead emphasizing unique, hyper-customizable experience, technologies such as Airbnb are molding a new industry standard for travel management, one which other popular travel sites have been all too keen to make their own. Expedia, for example, recently acquired (and has been aggressively advertising) vacation rental site HomeAway.

No matter which they prefer, planning service can only take travelers so far. Undertaking an extensive trip, especially in an unfamiliar country, can throw roadblocks in the paths of even veteran voyagers. Fortunately for modern travelers, a number of ridiculously useful (and usually free) travel apps have cropped up in Apple and Android marketplaces. Citymapper is a must for navigating public transport in dense cities where movement can get messy. Livetrekker logs a digital journal of your travel trajectory, which can be tagged with pictures, video, and more, so you can look back with nostalgia (and a little pride) at how far you’ve come. XE Currency converts funds, Rebtel makes calls without wifi, and yes, there’s even an app that prevents sunburn.

All of these tech tools harmonize to create a singularly memorable travel experience. Sophisticated travel planning options which consider our wants as well as our wallets, and apps which smooth travel wrinkles and keep your trip on track have rendered travel nearly effortless. In fact, I’d imagine the only truly impossible thing to do when traveling these days would be coming home without worthwhile memories.

Is Virtual Reality the Future of Travel?

Bruno Villetelle travel blog

Travel entices nearly everyone. When we dream of walking crystalline beaches, wandering blissfully lost past nature’s most idyllic creations, or navigating the strange buzz of an exotic mega-city lit up at night, it’s difficult to be anything but enthralled. In fact, I’d bet that if most people could, they would take their friends, their loved ones, and travel together nonstop. But that dream comes with an unfortunate caveat: reality. The reality of most of our situations leaves us unable to travel; we’re too busy working, providing. Living. Such thoughts make for wonderful daydreams, but our real preoccupation is with life.

Virtual reality could change everything. If we can convincingly sink ourselves into virtual landscapes, experiencing in staggering depth and clarity the sights and sounds of faraway places, VR may one day be able to fool our senses into traversing the globe (and beyond), without leaving the convenience of home. As it stands, the technology is still raw; it has yet to trickle fully into the mainstream, and what we do have is only a fraction of what might be achieved with VR.

Nevertheless, wearable VR has improved substantially since the colossal market failure of reality augmentation device Google Glass only a few years prior. Personal VR headsets which offer levels of visual immersion bordering on realistic are now produced and sold by companies such as Oculus Rift, Sony, and Samsung, and efforts to create virtual travel experiences are already well underway.

State-sponsored tourism channels have been among the first to accept VR’s potential to show us what we wouldn’t otherwise see;  in November 2016, Thailand’s Tourism Authority released a series of 360-degree videos, which included depictions of an elephant sanctuary, as well as western Thailand’s Kung Lao cave. “We want consumers to be able to touch, feel, see, and hopefully one day smell Thailand,” comments Steven Johnson-Stevenson, Thailand’s tourism marketing authority for the eastern United States. Tourism Australia has also published a number of 360 degree videos, including clips of a Sydney sunset, and snorkeling among the Great Barrier reef’s vibrant wildlife.

Another one of VR’s valuable travel applications is its ability to allow prospective vacationers to sample locations, in order to decide on the ideal setting. Travel companies such as Delta Airlines and Lufthansa use Oculus Rift to give a taste of what their services offer; also, the Thomas Cook Group launched a “fly before you buy,” initiative, implementing VR to spirit browsing customers away on a helicopter journey above Manhattan, a trek straight up the Pyramids of Giza, and more. Marriott has taken VR vacation sampling a step beyond the rest; in 2015, the hotel chain rolled out its interactive “teleport stations,” which utilize Oculus tech to entice customers, displaying across all five senses the virtual details of Hawaii’s breathtaking obsidian beaches.

But we’ve seen VR do more than just simulate a destination; it can also introduce an intriguing layer to our travels themselves; for example, VR app Timelooper transports users back in time by simulating major historic events at particular locations. “When you visit a historical site, there’s an abundance of resources to understand facts and figures—when it was constructed, how it was made, how people lived there at the time—but the thing that’s missing is a way to emotionally and immersively connect connect with these places,” elaborates Andrew Feinberg, Timelooper’s Chief Operating Officer.

From simulating a compelling, virtual version of travel to augmenting the journey itself, there seems to be every reason to conclude that in coming decades VR will undoubtedly hold sway over where we go, how we get there, and what travel actually means.

New Frontiers on the Horizon for the Digital Traveler: Part II

To read Part I in the “New Frontiers” series by Bruno Villetelle, titled “What Has Technology Done to Better Travel?” click here.

Part II: Interstellar Travel & Digital Health

As someone whose love of digital technology is surpassed by few things, it’s not often that I find myself able to connect that love with something that excites me to as high a degree. I have, however, found such a connection between myself, travel, and digital technology.

And the future of those things excites me a great, great deal.

Some people aren’t excited by travel. Some people don’t have that inherent “wanderlust” that those like myself are born with and develops over time. But regardless of your experiences of stances or passion regarding travel what the future has in store for travel–the new frontiers that the digitization of the world affords us–in the hands of the likes of Elon Musk is a difficult concept to ignore. The future is very, very much on the horizon, and the more we continue to embrace the digital revolution, the further we can push the limits of travel.

People like Elon Musk aren’t just changing the luxuries we are afforded when we travel, he’s on a mission to change every facet of exploration from top to bottom. And from one travel lover to another–I couldn’t be happier.

Musk’s vision of a Hyperloop-laden future has already been touched on in this post, and though it will certainly revolutionize the way we as human beings travel the world, much of the real interest lies in how we’ll travel other worlds.

The future of interstellar travel is quickly becoming the present of interstellar travel. People like Musk have passed through the phase of dreaming about traveling to the moon and begun bringing that dream to reality. His organization SpaceX is hard at work on expanding the current offerings for travel–no more will we have to choose between destinations limited solely to those on the Earth. If SpaceX is successful, interstellar could become a norm–an expensive norm perhaps–but one that is, in our generation, a possibility.

Recently, Musk announced he plans to send two people to the moon by 2018–giving him under two years to put the pieces together and solve the problems that any interstellar traveler is wont to run into.

But rocket science, engineering and design aren’t the only things that complicate the space-faring process. Healthcare–or the lack of it–makes interstellar travel incredibly difficult.

This is where we can introduce digital technologies.

Health complications in space go beyond headaches, bumps and bruises. The radiation an astronaut experiences during spaceflight can wreak havoc on the central nervous system. Studies of astronauts show that they die of cardiovascular disorders at 4 or 5 times the rate of those who haven’t been to deep space.

And the potential health issues certainly don’t end there. Both emergency conditions–such as heart attack or stroke–and nonemergency conditions–space adaptation syndrome being the most common–are nearly inevitable among those enduring space exploration.

As you probably can imagine, there is not an abundance of readily-available and well-stocked healthcare facilities in the vast reaches of space. The galaxy, in its unimaginably infinite size, is not outfitted with hospitals or minute-clinics every few thousand light years. But perhaps digital health can bridge the gap that a lack of hospital beds can leave. So what will the likes of Musk and his newly christened astronauts need out of digital health?

What must happen first is a shift in focus. If an astronaut aboard a shuttle or inhabiting another celestial body were to break his or her arm or suffer a heart attack, treatments could, in theory, be administered. But at the forefront of most every health-conscious individual should not be how we can treat illnesses like these, but how we can prevent them.

Shifting our focus to prevention of illness and other medical maladies means meticulously assessing and monitoring of the crew. This is precisely where digital health technologies can come into play so fruitfully. Wearable technology beyond anything you’d see on a jogger here on Earth can effortlessly monitor and report back on vital signs and any irregularities that can be expected when one is making the transition from Earth to space. Likewise, rigorous assessment via digital health readouts can be (and should be, and of course already are) done prior to jettisoning people into space to ensure that they’re as healthy as can be. These can be executed with the help of existing and burgeoning digital tech, like virtual reality.

While prevention should be at the forefront, treatment remains a necessary component. As any parent could tell you, no matter the precautions taken, people will inevitably get sick or injured. If the care provided to them can be executed digitally, the treatment processes will become exponentially simpler.

The quickest means of digitizing healthcare on other planets will involve bringing the point of care along for the ride. Incredible technology like that in IBM’s Watson has achieved everything from besting past champs on Jeopardy to diagnosing illnesses that had perplexed human doctors. This is the technology of the future–both of healthcare and beyond. Bringing it along to space could streamline the healthcare process for astronauts and perhaps, in our lifetime, moon residents.

We have come too far as a civilization, made too many advancements and knocked down far, far too many roadblocks to stop here. But the potential for in-space health complications makes space travel dangerous–even more so than people already recognize. By advancing our digital technologies even further and pairing them with our affinity for space exploration, we could be putting digital and galactic healthcare into, well, a world of their own.