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Griffin on Tech: Tech innovation can help us open back up

Peter Griffin, Editor. 01 October 2021, 4:03 pm

The New Zealand Herald's technology editor Chris Keall likely reflected the reaction of many around the country on Wednesday with his two-word tweet (now deleted) early on during Wednesday's 1pm Covid briefing: "F**k me!"

The 45 new cases of Covid came as a shock, particularly to Aucklanders eyeing up a move down to Level 2 restrictions. It's a reminder of the insidious nature of this delta variant and a warning about what lies ahead unless we can get over well over 80% of adults vaccinated. Even with a high vaccination rate, Singapore is now seeing thousands of new cases a day. Can our own health system and contract tracing infrastructure cope with a similar surge?

This week started off with bold talk from former Prime Minister John Key and others about the path to opening up our borders again, followed up with the National Party's plan to clear the way for returning Kiwis to get home by Christmas. 

Tech luminaries Sir Ian Taylor and Ian MacCrae also weighed in, voicing their frustration at the worsening impact border restrictions are having on exporters as the rest of the world gets back to business. But Sir Ian returned to an earlier theme he raised last year as plans for a Covid card to aid contact tracing efforts started to go off the rails. 

He reeled off several innovations from New Zealand companies that might alleviate our efforts to trace and contain delta, including a Covid rapid testing device that returns a PCR result "in 25 minutes" and a device you can "wear on your arm, like an iPhone, to detect the earliest symptoms".

But he added: "All these companies have stepped up but very few knew what the others were doing. What they all had in common was they weren't able to get through to you with what they had to offer," wrote Sir Ian, addressing the Prime Minister directly.

Scaling Up

Tech not a solution in itself

This has been a common refrain from our innovation leaders through this pandemic. They want to help but feel they can't make any headway in navigating the bureaucracy. Some just feel ignored. Sir Ian describes them as "The Bench". On the sidelines, but raring to go.

Technologists too often think they are the solution to society's problems. The only real solution to delta is our tireless frontline health workers and each and every one of us sticking to alert level restrictions and getting vaccinated. 

But we also need our most innovative minds to have input on the big challenges that lie ahead. There has been no process for them to feed ideas to the people who really need to hear them. For a small country, we really struggle to connect and coordinate our efforts at times.

It was good therefore to see BusinessDesk reporting this week that Xero founder Rod Drury and Darrin Graffton, founder of travel software company Serko, have indeed been quietly advising the Government. 

"We're both in the tech space and I'm in the travel space - we want to make sure we're facilitating the conversations," Grafton told BusinessDesk. 

That's great, hopefully they can succeed where Rob Fyfe and Sam Morgan failed. 

Working the tech angles

We have three big looming developments in the Covid response that have a technology element - the self-isolation trial, which if successful could alleviate our MIQ gridlock, the introduction of digital vaccine certificates (and eventually vaccine passports) so we can travel abroad and the widespread adoption of rapid antigen testing

We need smartphone-based technology that does an accurate job of keeping tabs on people in self-isolation, that is scalable and protects their privacy. The vaccine certificatesystem likewise needs to replicate the NZ Covid Tracer app's attention to privacy protection. A vaccine certificate app is set to debut in November, but already its design is raising serious questions.

This work can all be done to a high standard, but there's a lot of work behind the scenes to make sure it becomes trusted technology and compatible with international systems.

Australia's Therapeutic Goods Administration just approved rapid antigen testing kits for home use. Their use could be a game-changer for airports, transport hubs, workplaces and schools here, with the right digital infrastructure to manage self-test results. 

We need the agile, iterative approach to developing, trialling and scaling up these sorts of services and platforms that the tech industry knows well. Let's use the knowledge and capability we have here and borrow the best ideas from countries that have dealt with delta on a larger scale.

Now is the time to be casting the net far and wide for ideas and innovations to help facilitate the great opening up. 


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