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Griffin on Tech: The social dilemma, duelling knights and Covid complacency

Peter Griffin, Contributor. 15 January 2021, 11:03 am

Every day for the past week, with Wellington well and truly in summer mode, I've been heading down to Oriental Bay for a late afternoon swim. 

The water is calm and warm, stingrays bask in the shallows and the beach resembles Bondi on a scorching Sydney day. There's hardly a spare patch of golden sand to throw your towel down on.

Kiwis have been making the most of their holidays, to the envy of northern hemisphere friends forced to endure the newsfeed photos of crowded bars and beaches, as they live with the surging virus. In Ireland where much of my extended family lives, the country's Covid Tracker app tells me that there were 3,955 cases of Covid-19 on January 14th and 28 deaths. That could be us.

The sense of nervousness that we have grown far too complacent about Covid-19 is growing.

"Stunned that not a single person going to the supermarket tonight was scanning the NZ COVID Tracer QR code. Not one," tweeted the Wellington-based Infometrics economist Brad Olsen yesterday. 

"I looked wildly out of place stopping to take 2 seconds to scan. Complacency has well and truly set in. Dangerous if there is an outbreak."

The plummeting use of the NZ COVID Tracer app for scanning into shops, restaurants and businesses will render digital contact tracing efforts ineffective, particularly if some of the new highly infectious variants of Covid-19 begin to circulate here.

"If any variants of the virus got out, never mind these more infectious ones, they would spread like wildfire," microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles warned this week.

As BusinessDesk pointed out this week, it's not just laziness - there are digital divide issues limiting compliance, which is hard to quantify.

What's the answer? A relentless and effective public health campaign is underway, but in the absence of community transmission, we have become jaded. We have all of the digital tools other countries are using - a functional QR code-based app and the Apple/Google Bluetooth contact tracing feature. Dr Michelle 'Nanogirl' Dickinson even coached iPhone users on how to boot into the NZ COVID Tracer app with the mere tap of a finger on the pack of the phone, giving the 2-second access Olsen speaks of.

There's only one other digital trick we could and should try - Bluetooth beacons. Placed in retail outlets, they would automatically detect smartphones that come into contact with them and have Bluetooth enabled. It would basically take the effort out of signing in as it would be done automatically by proximity to a Bluetooth beacon.

The technology is being trialled in New Zealand on a small scale. Paperkite, the company behind the Rippl contact tracing app, is experimenting with beacons. But the infrastructure requirements are daunting - each business would need beacons strategically located around their premises to get the required coverage with Bluetooth only accurate up to 10 metres or so at best.

The search is on for a more accurate and easy to deploy technology. At its Tokyo headquarters, TDK is trialling VENUE a contact tracing system based on the geomagnetic sensor found in smartphones and used for location-based services. The sensor gives a location accurate to within a couple of metres and would communicate this info anonymously to an app on the phone. It would remove the need for adding wireless infrastructure to premises. The drawback is that for it to work properly, it would need an indoor layout map to be surveyed for each premise.

When an infected person is identified, everyone who was close to them in a shop or restaurant could be traced.

There's a risk that automating even further the process of digital contact tracing will just entrench the complacency. But we need to be prepared for the virus to be part of life for a long time to come and deploy every possible tool in the arsenal, including Covid Card type devices where people don't have smartphones, to ensure contact tracing efforts are sustainable. 

Cup drama runneth over

In a week where Team New Zealand escaped damage and injury in a capsize of its 75-foot monohull boat on the Auckland harbour, another drama emerged off the water centred on software.

Dunedin company Animation Research, headed by former ITP president (2014 - 2016) Sir Ian Taylor, who was knighted in the New Year's Honours, is in a copyright dispute with America's Cup sailing legend Sir Russell Coutts over the graphics used to deliver official TV coverage of the racing.

The Coutts-led companies Oracle Racing and F50 League LLC, trading as SailGP, claim they own the rights to aspects of the clever augmented reality system Animation Research is using. Sir Ian argues that Animation Research developed the technology for the America's Cup as far back as 1992 and was blindsided by the copyright claim which arrived on the 23rd of December.

It's not a dispute about the technology underlying the system, but a few specific details around how the information is displayed on screen, with SailGP laying claim to the format of defining the course perimeter, displaying sponsors logos and indicating the distance between boats.

Sir Ian is one of our most respected technology leaders and Animation Research one of our most innovative companies, so it is disappointing to see this flare-up now. Sir Russell may have a valid claim to intellectual property, but also a vested interest - he's not involved in this America's Cup, but a rival yachting format where the LiveLine augmented reality system SailGP has developed will no doubt be deployed.

That two of our most prominent and respected Kiwis can't sort this out with a conversation says so much about the fractious and competitive nature of the America's Cup. Sir Ian's team worked hard this week to reformat the graphics, which will debut for racing this afternoon. Here's hoping that puts the issue to bed and allows us to focus on the action on the water rather than bitter recriminations on the sidelines.

Jack was right, sort of

There has been much debate about the de-platforming of President Trump from Twitter and Facebook in the wake of the riot at the US Capitol building, allegedly incited by a speech Trump gave which was backed up with tweets to his 88 million followers.

As I wrote on BusinessDesk this week, I think Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey did the right thing in permanently banning Trump from the platform. Faced with a difficult decision, he opted for an excess of caution, hoping to minimise the risk of further riots, violence and deaths.

But did he and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg make those calls to block Trump for the right reasons? A new Democratic president will be in the White House in less than a week. It's easy to be cynical and suggest the two billionaire tech executives are playing to the new master, looking to endear themselves President-elect Biden and Democratic lawmakers and soften any regulatory changes that are coming.

That may be the case, but ultimately, I accept the explanation for the move Dorsey tweeted this week. 

"We faced an extraordinary and untenable circumstance, forcing us to focus all of our actions on public safety," he wrote 

"Offline harm as a result of online speech is demonstrably real, and what drives our policy and enforcement above all."

But he and his fellow executives running social media networks can't continue to be responsible for making such editorial calls. The US needs a digital regulator where the "super-spreaders", those with massive social media followings and influence, are scrutinised by an independent regulator, who decides if and when they are deplatformed. It needs to be open and transparent and subject to appeal. But it needs to happen soon in the US and be mirrored around the world.

Dorsey's answer to the problem, funnily enough, doesn't involve regulation.

"We are trying to do our part by funding an initiative around an open decentralized standard for social media. Our goal is to be a client of that standard for the public conversation layer of the internet. We call it @bluesky"

How will that combat the influential spreading hate speech and inciting violence? It's not clear. It's a typically utopian and unrealistic concept from a Silicon Valley magnate. Other types of media are regulated and standards policed - why not social media?

The likes of Facebook and Twitter need to do more to police their platforms and do so transparently. But the time has come for independent regulatory oversight of them. Regulation won't be perfect, but it will be better than what we have now. The Democrats, if they are serious about changing the toxic nature of online discourse and its corrosive impact on democracy, need to take action.

Peter Griffin is filling in for Tech Blog editor Paul Brislen, who will return from a distant beach before the end of the month...hopefully


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