Mary Gray Urges COVID-19 Technology to Focus on Equity

By TAP Staff Blogger

Posted on July 10, 2020


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Ultimately, the most efficient tech efforts to combat the pandemic will be the ones that prioritize equity.
Professor Mary Gray, Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, from her article “‘Colorblind’ Tech is Killing Us: Why COVID-19 Tech Must Focus on Equity”

 

According to the Johns Hopkins University tracker, the United States has surpassed three million confirmed cases of coronavirus. This represents about one quarter of the world’s total cases. These records also show that the number of deaths due to COVID-19 are over 133,000.

 

Examining these numbers from racial and ethnic minority groups shows that “the virus has significantly and disproportionately hit Black and Hispanic communities” (“New Data on State’s Coronavirus Cases, Deaths Show Stark Racial DivideThe Boston Globe, June 19, 2020). The Centers for Disease Control recently released a report, “COVID-19 in Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups” which outlines:

 

As of June 12, 2020, age-adjusted hospitalization rates are highest among non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native and non-Hispanic black persons, followed by Hispanic or Latino persons.

 
  • Non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native persons have a rate approximately 5 times that of non-Hispanic white persons,
     
  • non-Hispanic black persons have a rate approximately 5 times that of non-Hispanic white persons,
     
  • Hispanic or Latino persons have a rate approximately 4 times that of non-Hispanic white persons.
     

In “‘Colorblind’ Tech is Killing Us: Why COVID-19 Tech Must Focus on Equity,” Professor Mary L. Gray, faculty associate at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, calls out the tech sector for exacerbating “the systemic racism and health disparities that have given the pandemic its grotesque shape in our country — because they ignore them.”

 

Professor Gray explains that by focusing on the technical challenge of how to maintain both privacy and accuracy in data collection, the “Tech Sector has all but ignored building the technologies needed most: Systems to support the healthcare work of routing and managing care to those struck down by the virus.”

 

Below are a few excerpts from “‘Colorblind’ Tech is Killing Us: Why COVID-19 Tech Must Focus on Equity.”

 

As states began to more systematically document the demographics of those falling ill, it quickly became clear that Black and Latinx communities were far more likely to suffer the lethal impact of the virus.

 

But, today, most technological innovations remain strangely ‘colorblind’ to the reality that racial inequalities play a significant role in where COVID-19 makes the most significant impact. Despite overwhelming data telling us that the most vulnerable, historically marginalized communities disproportionately bear the heavy costs of COVID-19, tech efforts still focus on an efficient moment of data collection and information-sharing — a ping or a text notice — designed to quietly let Person X (let’s call her Alice) know that they may have crossed paths with Person Y (let’s call him Bob) with COVID-19.

 

To be sure, there are good arguments for digital tracing and proximity notification applications deployed via smart devices to convey information. If just a portion of a population — say at a worksite or college campus — adopt these digital apps, we could reduce some of the work currently spent figuring if, where, or when someone crosses paths with the virus. But what is wrong-headed about this singular approach is not just the most recent string of studies suggesting that many in the United States are unwilling to download apps and share their health data. The bigger issue is that identifying who might be sick is meaningless if this key pillar of the epidemiological practice referred to as ‘contact tracing’ is not linked to tech-savvy systems for patient monitoring and care for those infected with COVID-19. It is like building a 911-emergency system to log calls for help disconnected from systems that ensure a first responder shows up to assist.

 

Read the full article: “‘Colorblind’ Tech is Killing Us: Why COVID-19 Tech Must Focus on Equity” (Medium, June 25, 2020).

 

Mary L. Gray is a faculty associate at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society and a Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research. Professor Gray is one of the world’s experts in the emerging field of ethics and AI, particularly research at the intersection of computer and social sciences. Her work looks at how automation, technology access, material conditions, and everyday uses of media and technologies transform people’s lives.


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