Artificial intelligence and emerging epidemics: A conversation with Dr Lele Rangaka

Dr Lele Rangaka is a Clinical Associate Professor in UCL’s Institute for Global Health and lead the UCL ‘AI for People and Planet’ roundtable on Emerging Epidemics. She sat down with roundtable coordinator, Audrey Tan, to share her thoughts on the most salient points of the discussion. Read more about the series and the Insights for Public Policy on the AI for People and Planet website.

Thanks so much for speaking to me today Lele. It sounds like you’re really busy and you’ve got a lot going on - are you working on any other policy-related projects right now?

I had such a fun time with the roundtable discussion and it’s created a whole lot of others projects. When we were brainstorming the list of panellists, I invited people that I knew about or had read about in the field of AI. Since the roundtable, I’ve been working with Bill Lampos on a behavioural insights project on misinformation surrounding vaccines and COVID-19. So what we’re doing is using internet search data to identify information hotspots. This will have a number of benefits, including enabling us to better target public health campaigns, as well as helping to evaluate the impact of different policies the increase or decrease of misinformation. For instance, we can check the timing of key events and announcements and assess whether misinformation trends correlate with the number of COVID-19 cases.

The roundtable has also linked up with longstanding work that I’ve been doing in Cape Town in South Africa. COVID-19 has pushed a lot of these projects to get started. We’ve just completed a survey of young people in the peri-urban setting of Cape Town, which has aimed to identify young people’s information sources and the content of information received. The findings of the survey will also inform the most effective channels for information campaigns i.e. radio, television, Instagram, Youtube, etc. We’re also trying to expand this project across different languages and different countries, including Nigeria.

I was really impressed because even though this roundtable was only two hours, the transcript was almost as long as the other roundtables that were three hours! So we really covered a lot of ground. Was there anything that surprised you about the discussion?

I was kicking myself for not opting for a two and a half or three hour session, but I don’t know whether we would have got much more out of it than we did. What surprised me was that though this discipline relies on data, the lack of access to data and sharing of data between academia, industry and government is a big issue. If this is a problem for high-income countries, you can imagine what the baseline is in poorer countries.

Was there anything new that you learned?

The roundtable led me to appreciate the tension between the need to use data to support AI tools and the sheer amount of public mistrust around the use of data. What really hit me was that we don’t currently know how to foster greater trust and balance what should be a public good. We need to resolve that tension somehow. With AI, I think part of the problem is that it’s this big unknown, and we haven’t done a good job in explaining what it is or how people’s data will be used or, more importantly, protected.

The other thing that was interesting for me was how equity issues and social justice came to the fore. As facial recognition technologies are being adapted to account for people wearing masks and trialled for use in track and trace programmes, concerns are also being raised around major ethics issues. Highlighted by the use of facial recognition technologies during the Black Lives Matter protests in the US, these technologies still have inaccuracies and racial biases that really need to be considered before they’re widely adopted for use in combatting the spread of the virus.

It was interesting for me that many of the elements around ethics and social justice that were raised in the Emerging Epidemics Roundtable were also echoed in the Equity Roundtable and Art Futures roundtable. The concept of equity in AI runs throughout pretty much every domain.

I wonder if we ran the same roundtable, but solely with participants from the low and middle-income countries, what sort of social justice issues would be raised.

Did you have any key reflections in terms of public policy AI and emerging epidemics?

I think the issue in places like South Africa is that we don’t have the human capacity to actually do data science properly and derive potential benefits. Additionally, none of the data tools that were available were fit for purpose to manage the pandemic, for example for supporting logistics and the distribution of essential drugs, or even estimating the prevalence in hospitals. In many countries we’ve seen this where things are just not linked up, and this is magnified in the Global South. Globally we need policies that do not leave people or countries behind and we really need more policies around data protection.

You’ve already touched on my next question, which was about collaborations resulting from the roundtable.

Stephen Roberts has been asked to write an action piece for the London School of Economics Business Review. Stephen is also the Co-Director of the MSc in Global Health and Development and he and Audrey Prost are the co-leads for the Concepts and Controversies in Global Health module. They have approached me directly to work with them on part of the module.

I’m also working with a team to conduct some systematic reviews and lucky for us we have a couple of students who will be looking at the use of the contact tracing apps throughout the pandemic. These reviews will be mixed methods so we will have qualitative data to flesh out the quantitative data.

How we can build on this engagement?

It would be great to create an alumni network for all of the people who have been involved with all of the roundtables as part of the AI for People Series so we can continue fostering this collaboration and cross-fertilisation of ideas.

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More about the Roundtables

Jointly supported by UCL Public Policy, UCL Grand Challenges, the Business and Innovations Partnerships team and UCLB from UCL Innovation and Enterprise, UCL hosted a series of roundtable discussions on the topic of artificial intelligence (AI) throughout 2020–2021. This series brought together leading voices in policy, industry, third sector and academia with the aim of stimulating dialogue and forging consensus on how to deliver ‘AI for People and Planet.’

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