“I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.”
From the enduring COVID-19 pandemic to the slow burn of climate change or broiling racial tension, the “real facts” will always be available to us, if there’s a will and a way to perceive them.
While high level, generic data can inform broad-brush decisions, highly specific data provided by startups is giving true insight for meaningful action on COVID-19, the climate crisis and diversity.
Getting out of these crises requires evidence-backed choices from decisions makers — and that includes you.
It might be tempting to write off “decisions makers” as a boardroom cabal of distant suits. But we all have choices to make. Every decision, big or small, affects the outcomes of the pandemic, the climate crisis and the struggle for equality.
Data startups are beginning to measure, count, compile and compute to help us make the most informed choices. From new algorithms to virtual reality and wearable tech, startups are gathering the data that can guide our actions in these crises.
How data helps during pandemics
During the COVID-19 pandemic, data has been the guiding light for some. In its absence, others have been lost in the dark.
The South Korean government learned the value of data — and data transparency — in the 2015 MERS epidemic.
After 36 deaths and a public backlash about the government’s lack of transparency, new legislation allowed for fast, free testing, public data sharing for contact tracing, and mandatory isolation of the most serious cases in any new pandemic.
When COVID-19 cases started spiking in March, South Korea was testing at the world’s fastest pace, even when they had only 5000 cases. The South Korean government also gathered and shared a huge amount of data to enable contact tracing.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, anonymized information, including which travel routes confirmed cases had taken, helped people decide if they were likely to have come into contact with an infected person.
The government in South Korea even shared if the infected people were wearing a mask or not.
Empowered by the data the government was sharing, South Koreans were taking action by getting tested or self-isolating.
By now, we know all too well how things went in the absence of testing, tracing and transparency.
Fundamentally, South Korea’s success is a case of data informing action on a national level. Their protocol of testing, tracing and treating worked because it gave people just enough data to decide what to do.
But in some cases, even more highly specific data is needed to inform the most effective actions. That’s where data startups are stepping in.
Data generated by wearable tech
While the national government of South Korea tracked people on a population level, some startups are getting much more granular.
CarePredict, for example, is a data startup helping to protect highly sensitive seniors in communal facilities by using contact tracing on the most localized level possible.
Data published in the New York Times suggests a COVID-19 mortality rate of 15% for people over 80.
This vulnerability creates an acute need for data-driven, life-saving decisions about testing and isolation in residential care facilities, which are too small for broad brush stay-at-home orders to actually protect their vulnerable inhabitants.
In nursing homes with CarePredict, residents are kitted out with a neat bit of wearable tech: a wristband that accurately tracks where they go inside a facility.
It sounds simple, but the amount of insight that comes from CarePredict’s data is astonishing.
Not only does the startup track who crossed paths with whom, but it can also show if they spent time in an area where an infected person might have left the virus active on a surface or in the air.
With this data in hand, decision-makers are more informed about who to test or isolate, as well as where to focus sanitation efforts to curtail an outbreak within the home.
The highly specific data from simple wristbands can be, in a very immediate sense, life-saving.
And when it comes to saving lives, data startups are playing a pivotal role in protecting the most vulnerable living thing of all — the earth itself.
Data startups are guiding the way toward net-zero emissions
We cannot be radical enough in dealing with those issues that face us at the moment. The question is what is practically possible. — Sir David Attenborough, natural historian, in testimony to the UK House of Commons, 2019
Decision-makers are already choosing how to lead us into a future of environmental prosperity (or ruin). Just like with COVID, highly specific data can make all the difference.
In 2016, 189 nations became party to the Paris Climate Accord. They agreed to try to limit the increase in global average temperatures to 1.5 °C, primarily by lowering greenhouse gas emissions.
The agreement was a recognition of the compelling need for coordinated action. In that sense, it was very much like a blanket stay-at-home order for COVID-19.
But just as COVID-struck care homes require specific data to guide their actions, decision-makers, from you the consumer to chemical company executives, need specific data to guide the choices they make in particular contexts.
One of the biggest hurdles to lowering greenhouse gas emissions is relying on data rather than intuition to guide our decisions.
Eschewing single-use plastic drinks bottles is just one example: We are all conscious of the plastic waste floating in our oceans. This awareness has led beverage brands to start offering drinks in aluminium cans or cardboard cartons.
It seems like an obvious solution to help out the planet. But experts say that alternatives to plastic bottles can actually be more environmentally damaging.
If plastic bottles are replaced with aluminium cans, toxic waste from manufacturing aluminium increases. “Cardboard” cartons tend to be a mixture of paper and plastic, which is tricky to recycle. Glass has a bigger overall carbon footprint than any of the alternatives.
These sometimes counter-intuitive insights come from a field of study called Life-cycle Assessment. Life-cycle Assessments analyse the overall impact of a product, from the materials that go into it, through the use of the product to its disposal.
Instead of leaving decision-makers in the dark, Life-cycle Assessment is rooted in the reality of scientifically measured impacts, rather than preconceived notions of what seems greener.
These assessments can provide the foundation for sound decision making. But that foundation is only as firm as the data it is built on.
Climate decisions: as good as the data supporting them
For the plastic bottles on our supermarket shelves, it is possible to assess the impacts in general. But what about the impacts of the specific bottles a given company uses, or the individual one you pick up and hold in your hand?
For environmentally-conscious consumers and corporate executives with pressing climate targets (yes, they exist, from Burberry to Nestlé), making the best choice in their specific context requires highly specific data, not generalizations.
Getting to that level of specificity is where Life-cycle Assessment can become a tangled issue.
Life-cycle Assessment looks at a product from the very start of its life, tracing everything that goes into it. Whether we’re assessing a t-shirt or a laptop, that invariably means chemical products.
Life-cycle Assessments need to trace not only the chemicals that go into a product, but also the processes used to produce those chemicals, all the way back up the supply chain.
Tracing products back to their chemical ingredients often leads to a murky world of non-specific data averages. Questions of “best fit” data have long plagued the Life-cycle Assessment community.
That’s where data startups like Germany based Carbon Minds are stepping in with ever more specific data to enable decisions with a firm foundation.
Just like CarePredict got granular with their data to safeguard the eldery, Carbon Minds is using highly specific data to protect the planet.
Through a combination of existing datasets and algorithms based on thermodynamics, Carbon Minds is able to trace hundreds of the most common chemicals through the myriad global supply chains to find the most environmentally efficient options.
It’s a further example of how highly specific data can help find the best way out of a crisis.
As UC Santa Barbara Prof. Sangwon Suh, Carbon Mind’s scientific advisor and former coordinating lead author at the IPCC wrote recently:
I see a parallel between my past experience [in LCA] and what is happening in the face of [sic] COVID-19 crisis […] understanding the root of the problem, identifying hot-spots, and efficiently deploying limited resources to major targets seem to be the logical strategy. […] That’s the power of data and evidence, the ability to know the enemy.
Whether it’s COVID-19 or environmentally impactful hotspots in a chemical production process, knowing the enemy enables decision-makers to take effective action.
Nowhere is that more important than when the enemy is within our own minds.
Virtual reality is lighting up the dark corners of discriminatory minds
“People are ignorant of the things that affect their actions, yet they rarely feel ignorant. We need to accept our ignorance and say “I don’t know” more often.” — Malcolm Gladwell
When it comes to diversity and inclusion one virtual reality startup is convinced that “I don’t know” is not an acceptable response.
Australian virtual reality startup Equal Reality puts participants in virtual reality simulations of everyday interactions from the perspective of different minorities.
The aim is to simulate the experience of the thousand tiny acts of discrimination that plague the everyday lives of people of color, different abilities, or marginalized genders.
It works like this. Once you put on the VR headset, you find yourself in a different body. An able-bodied white male might be in the skin of a woman of color, or a disabled man.
It might be virtual, but it feels very real.
These experiences then take you through everyday interactions, like seemingly innocuous workplace conversations, from your new perspective.
By pulling a trigger on a handset during the experience, you can signal any moments where you feel uncomfortable, cut out, or discriminated against.
Before taking off the headset and returning to the real world, you can review your data and see how good you are at spotting the all-too-often unnoticed acts of discrimination in everyday conversations.
The results are striking. In these virtual reality experiences, 99% of people say they understand what discrimination feels like; they truly empathize with the victims of discrimination. 96% say they would be ready to take action in the real world.
Independent research backs this up. One study found that implicit racial bias does indeed decrease when participants are placed in a virtual body where the skin color is different from their own.
If there was any doubt about how profound the implications of implicit bias can be, consider this: diminished access to healthcare owing, in part, to the implicit bias of medical staff is being singled out as one factor in why majority-black counties in the US have a 6 times higher death rate than white counties.
And when participants in a mock trial went through virtual reality embodiment in a black body, they were more likely to consider vague evidence to be less indicative of guilt. As a result, these virtual reality trained jurors rendered more Not Guilty verdicts for black defendants.
Thanks to VR, the combination of real empathy and hard, highly personalized data is lighting up people’s minds to reveal their own unconscious biases.
Highly specific data can guide us through our crises
These data startups are showing us that we can take a fuller account of the underlying causes of COVID outbreaks, climate change, and biased behaviors.
While national governments, international bodies, and corporate organizations prescribe the broad brush solutions, it’s data startups who can show us exactly how to heal from the strains of the pandemic, environmental degradation, and bias of every kind.
Highly specific data can reveal ever more nuanced ways to effectively navigate these crises.
With Lincoln’s “real facts” in hand, startups will help us find our way out of these crises of health, climate, and equality.