Technology, Testing, and the Pandemic

Although technology has an asset through much of the pandemic, some instances exist where it’s been disappointing. Or perhaps it’s my expectation of how technology should work that’s disappointing. For example, scheduling Covid-19 tests or vaccinations is a perfect platform for technology to shine. However, this isn’t always how it works.

Before booking my first Covid-19 test, I assumed it would be easy and straightforward. In reality, it wasn’t difficult, but annoying. It was not a seamless process. Here’s what happened.

I went to the Covid-19 provincial website to find testing centers in my region. A list of options appeared. Here’s where it got annoying. Each testing site had its own sign up process. Some sites allowed me to enter a date, then showed available time slots. Other sites required me to enter all the registration information before providing date/time options.

Getting the results was even more irritating. The testing centers instructed us check our results online. My partner, who went to a different testing center on the same day, received his results the next day. Mine, however, never appeared online. After four days of (anxiously) waiting, I tried in vain to contact someone for the results. Eventually, after seven days and multiple tries, I succeeded. Negative, fortunately. My results never appeared online, with no explanation as to why.

This scenario illustrates a perfect example of how technology is failing us during the pandemic. At this point, booking a test should be routine, straightforward, and convenient. More importantly, the process should be consistent and focused on date/time availability. Most people likely want a test as soon as possible. Therefore, the system should focus on showing registrants available testing centers based on date/time. By contrast, I had to use several different systems to book an appointment.

Ensuring Technology is an Asset

The challenges with booking tests, and receiving results, is a strong incentive to improve existing systems. It could even be an opportunity for more advanced technologies, like medical robots. Trained medical robots could do the testing. Testing centers could be drive throughs, and open longer.

Booking vaccinations could be a centralized process. Instead it’s a hybrid process of waiting in person, calling, and booking online. Or going on waitlists. Again, it depends where you live and what’s available. It’s needlessly complicated. This ultimately slows down the process, resulting in wasted unused vaccinations.

The technology is available. It just needs coordination.

The Covid Vaccination Passport: Free Pass or Pass Altogether…

With so many people receiving vaccinations, there’s been a lot of discussion about issuing a vaccine passport. Essentially, the passport verifies whether or not a person was vaccinated. Most likely the passport will be digital. However, many people now receive a paper record of their vaccination.

In some cases, the passport will grant access to indoor dining, sports events, and concerts. It could become a new travel requirement. Though regarding vaccines and travel, some countries already ready require certain vaccinations for entry. So likely a Covid-19 vaccination won’t be any different in that regard. Many schools and daycares already require students to show proof of certain vaccines. Perhaps adding a Covid-19 vaccine to the list won’t be any different.

Some flags have already been raised about potential discriminations with a vaccine passport. It could discriminate against people that have a legitimate medical exemption. Or against people who don’t have the technology to access a vaccination passport. Or against people who aren’t able to get a vaccine because of shortages. Although many concerns raised about the passport focus on discrimination, my concerns are more from a records and information management perspective. These include: security, protecting private (and personal) information, authenticity, and compatibility.

Furthermore, at this point, nobody knows the long-term frequency of the vaccine. It could become an annual shot. This also makes me wonder about the feasibility of keeping all these vaccine passports updated and maintained. At the moment, developers are already working on new vaccine passport apps. What happens if one of these apps goes out of business? It could become corrupt, or incompatible with newer softwares.

For starters, the information requirements and standards for the vaccine passport should come from an authorized body, preferably a global one. This could help ensure that information is compatible across different systems. This could help with authenticating the passports across cultures and countries. For example, if the vaccine does turn into an annual occurrence, the date becomes significant. Writing the date in a standardized format, e.g., yyyy-mm-dd, could make a significant difference. For example, the US tends to write the date mm-dd-yyyy. Whereas other countries tend to write the date from largest to smallest (yyyy-mm-dd) or vice versa (dd-mm-yyyy). These differences matter for something that is time sensitive.  

Is the passport a good idea? Should the Covid-19 vaccine be treated differently from other vaccinations we already receive?

Stay tuned for future developments.

The Role of Facebook’s Oversight Board

The Oversight Board piqued my interest several months ago. Right after Facebook banned President Trump in early January 2021, the Board received an appeal. The Board’s task is to determine if Facebook made the right decision. If Facebook was right, Trump remains banned. If Facebook was wrong, Trump starts posting again.

However, whatever the outcome, Facebook must follow the Board.

The Board’s delayed its decision, originally expected in mid-April. The Board needs more time to review material regarding the Trump decision.

What is the Oversight Board?

It’s no secret that Facebook has challenges managing content produced by its 2+ billion users. The challenge has two main components. The first part is creating rules, guidelines, and algorithms to screen content across different languages and cultures to ensure everything is “acceptable.” Or at least acceptable according to Facebook’s fluid definition of the term.

The second part is the volume. With more than 2 billion users, even missing a small percentage of questionable content has a big impact. The missed content can still result in a sizable amount of posts or images that violate Facebook’s terms of service.

Facebook’s Oversight Board was created to provide oversight on difficult, or controversial decisions, Facebook made regarding content. The Board comprises individuals from different cultures, disciplines, and countries. Its main purpose is to provide independent and transparent oversight on appeals following Facebook’s decisions.

People submit appeals to the Board following a ban from Facebook. For example, should all nipples be banned on Facebook as something pornographic? Or indecent exposure? What if the nipple is in the context of breast cancer awareness? Or in support of breastfeeding? Or simply acceptable in some cultures?

Is the Oversight Board Necessary?

The Oversight Board is a new concept. It’s only been around for a little over a year. On the one hand, Facebook does need something to help manage its large and diverse group of users. Relying on the government for this type of oversight gets tricky. Governments move slow and will likely influence the direction of Facebook based on the political affiliation of a leader at any given time.

What Facebook needs is something that can make decisions quickly, work across cultures (and languages), and remain politically neutral. Can the Oversight Board fulfill this role? It’s too early to know. We’ll have to wait until the Board’s decisions trickle down to the actions taken by Facebook and the impact on users.

Using Google Lens for Plant Identification

With spring arriving, we’ve been cleaning up the backyard. It’s provided a welcome distraction during our third lockdown. Our new home has an extensive garden. Since we moved in the winter, we don’t know what a lot of the plants are. One plant, a tree-like shrub, is everywhere. We couldn’t identify it from the dead buds attached to the branches. Then I remembered Google Lens.

Google lens is an app used to identify images. It can also identify text in other languages for translation and landmarks. When I was in library school, I recall the challenges with image indexing, i.e., coming up with words to properly identify the main subject(s) in an image. Thinking of the old adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words” helps to illustrate why this task is so difficult. However, Google lens can search for other similar images, a technology not available when I was in library school.

Feeling optimistic, I went outside and snapped a few photos. I took pictures of the bark, the whole plant, and a close up of the dead, dried-out buds, the only one that worked.

The unidentifiable plant

With the photo on my phone, I pressed the Google Lens app. Within seconds, the app scanned the photo identifying the “subjects” to search for online. Then provided me with some best guesses for a match. It was easy to change the app’s focal point if I wanted to search for something else.

The first guesses definitely weren’t right. One was for a desert plant and the other was for a seed pod.

Using Google Lens

Then I scrolled down to related results – similar images. Success! We identified the plant as hibiscus syriacus, also known as “Rose of Sharon.”

I was impressed that we were able to identify the plants when they weren’t in bloom. My previous attempts at using Google Lens had not been successful. Likely it was due to the image “subject” being too small, or out of focus.

While it did take a little bit of searching to actually find the match, having options narrowed down based on an image was helpful. Before Google Lens, I always found plant/flower identification trick. My only options were looking through books, tons of images, or using a database to make the match by describing the shape of the leaf, the color, the number of petals… all daunting for a novice.

Gaming the System: the Role of Influencers

The role of “influencer” has become a prominent part of the social media landscape. Influencers come in all shapes and sizes. Essentially, an influencer is someone who impacts another person’s decisions. This is accomplished through a variety of means and methods. Some influencers have celebrity status. Others have a large following on one, or more, social media channels such as Twitter or Facebook. Some have a wealth of knowledge or expertise about a specific topic. Mostly though, the influencer is about representing a brand and building personal relationships. Trust is key for the influencer, in addition to creating authentic (sponsored) content.

Most astonishing to me is the role of an influencer as an actual profession. Influencers make lots of money(!), to create content, build relationships, and represent brands. Ideally, the influencer should be generating business towards a specific brand or item, thereby making money for the company. However, using influencers makes sense from a business perspective. Influencers are a powerful marketing tool. They’re able to reach vast amounts of people, many of whom are likely the intended audience.

Seeing a review, or endorsement, from a person may have more weight than an advertisement. Whenever I check reviews for a new product, I usually read peer reviews. I also check some reputable product review companies, but peer reviews count too. Although, one must be mindful of the motives behind the peer review. There is a lot of fraud out there.

Gaming the System

Every time I hear about influencers, I always stop for a moment to wonder, how did we get here? How did this become a legitimate paid profession? And can I get in on the action? (Though I’m never sure what I would be good at endorsing…). Even more importantly, I always wonder about all the influencers gaming the system.

By gaming the system, I’m referring to influencers who buy “fake” followers to make their accounts look more attractive. Or people who are really savvy at creating catchy, sensational posts that go viral due to algorithms. Or by using bots to fabricate popularity and thus boost views.

So where does this leave us, as people, and consumers? Inundated by a never ending flow of content, some more authentic than others.

My advice, go for quality over quantity. Look into a couple of resources, or influencers, you like and verify them. Disregard the rest of the stuff.

Librarians: The Disinformation Antidote

One of the things I’ve always loved about the library is the validity of the resources. If I’m doing research and I find something through the library, I know it can be trusted. This doesn’t mean I agree with the findings, or that it’s the best thing out there, but it has a certain level of credibility. Libraries, and particularly librarians, are in the business of verifying the trustworthiness and quality of materials before they get added to the collection. This includes practices like developing criteria, vetting resources, and making sure items remain current and relevant as information changes.

Libraries, especially public ones, are amazing resources. I worked at a public library for about a year when I first became a librarian. My role as an “auxiliary librarian” presented me with the opportunity to work in branches all over the city. Basically I covered shifts for full-time librarians who were out. The wealth and variety of the collection, or how each branch tailored its resources to the patrons, constantly amazed me.

For example, a patron came to me once with an imitation of a signature he had found on a painting purchased at a garage sale. He wanted to know if the artist was famous. To my surprise, the library had a book of famous artist signatures exactly for this purpose. We weren’t able to match the chicken scratch he brought in, despite our efforts. But still, a book with famous artist signatures! I suppose now one could take a picture of the signature and use Google Lens to find a match. However, sometimes these things take a human eye to discern.

The Disinformation Antidote

Back to the main point, librarians are the perfect resource to combat the “infodemic.” Or any of the disinformation (and misinformation) spreading around digitally. Librarians are real information professionals. Our education includes methods for verifying and validating trustworthy resources. Many librarians are expert researchers and fact checkers.

How would this solution work? It’s not straightforward, especially considering how easily disinformation and misinformation goes viral. Facts are not always sensational, but during a pandemic, when information changes rapidly, it’s critical to get it right. One possible solution is for credible agencies to hire librarians to help with research and dissemination of accurate information. Get them posting the real stuff to drown out the noise of the infodemic.