Technology in the time of coronavirus

Written by Sam Trendall on 19 March 2020 in Opinion
Opinion

PublicTechnology editor Sam Trendall on the immense importance of government digital and data professionals, at a time when a lot of things suddenly seem less important than they did just a few days ago

Credit: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire/PA Images

“The most important of the least important things.”

This was how football was described last week by Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, in a message sent to the club’s fans after the entire professional game was put on hold.

His description could easily be applied to a whole range of things that, however important they seemed a year, a month, or even a few days ago, suddenly seem a lot less so.

As all of us strive to cope with whatever effect the coronavirus pandemic is having on our lives, our health – and that of our loved ones – is clearly the most important thing. Especially if you or anyone close to you is part of an at-risk group.

As restaurants, pubs, and arts venues are closed or emptied of customers, and businesses across the board adapt to an inevitable economic slowdown, the threat to financial security is, for many, at least as big a concern.

Digital channels will also be the primary, if not the only, means through which government and the rest of the public sector can reach citizens, and ensure they have up-to-date and accurate information and advice about Covid-19. 

Even for those who remain in relatively good physical health and stable employment, the prospect of weeks or even months starved of human contact poses a major risk to our mental wellness.

Like many people, this week I began what I expect to be a prolonged period of working from home and avoiding social contact. I live alone, and do not know when I will next see any of my co-workers, friends, or family. But I know that it will be nowhere near as soon as I hope and that, whenever it is, I will be very glad to do so.

After barely a day working from my home – which, although it is still entirely comprised of a single, small room, now serves as a bedroom, living room, kitchen, bathroom, and newsroom – I also now know that the continuing building work across the street and the fact that my upstairs neighbour makes a living composing electronic music are two things that, conversely, suddenly seem a whole lot more important than they did a few days ago.

My work itself, however, is not something to which I have ever attached more importance than I felt it needed.

I have been a technology journalist for pretty much my entire career to date. I have always taken pride in my work and in my profession, and tried to provide something that I hoped and believed was of value for whoever was reading, listening, or watching.

But, however valuable my stories about computers and interviews with IT executives were, I kept a sense of perspective; my work, while important to me, was evidently nowhere near as important as that of nurses, social workers, or teachers.

It seems even less significant now.

In fact, it seems almost a little absurd to carry on as normal while people are losing loved ones and jobs.

But we will be carrying on. 

Screen time
PublicTechnology will continue to publish news, analysis and features, and will strive to bring you the latest breaking stories from the world of public sector technology, and interviews with its leading figures. We also intend to continue sending out our daily newsletter, as we always do.

We will be carrying on as normal – or as normally as possible – partly because ‘normal’ is what we would all surely love to get back to as soon as possible. And the closer we can stay to it in the meantime, the better.

But also because what we write about – and what you, our readers, do for a living – really is important. Hugely so, and now more than ever.

Millions of people across the land will, for the foreseeable future, be conducting the vast majority of their interactions via a screen.

Digital channels will also be the primary, if not the only, means through which government and the rest of the public sector can reach citizens, and ensure they have up-to-date and accurate information and advice about Covid-19. 

Tech has already played a major role in government’s response, whether that is the Office for National Statistics using data science to build an early picture of which developing nations were likely to be most in need of aid, or the Department of Health and Social Care working with Twitter to ensure that users searching for #Coronavirus are pointed towards the NHS website. More engagement with social-media companies, helmed by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, is planned for the coming days and weeks, to try and track the spread of mis- and disinformation, and limit its impact.

The health service’s 111 phone and online advice service has been a key tool in fielding enquiries and providing support. Public Health England, meanwhile, acted quickly to launch an interactive online tool showing citizens the latest statistics on the spread of the virus and the impact on their local area.

And digital, data, and technology professionals will have just a crucial role to play in the rest of the public sector.

Pandemic or not, people still need to pay taxes, claim benefits, register for permits, attend lectures, apply for settled status, and access countless other public services that will be not be relied upon any less than they usually are.

Once again, digital platforms will be, in many cases, the only viable way for these services to continue to be delivered at anything like the necessary scale.

Many public sector agencies have already done significant work on digitising their services. There will be other organisations – particularly in education, primary healthcare, and mental-health services – where front-line professionals will be working with their techie colleagues and external suppliers as a matter of priority in trying to find new ways to support the public, while minimising the risk of doing so.

"We will be carrying on as normal – or as normally as possible – partly because ‘normal’ is what we would all surely love to get back to as soon as possible. And the closer we can stay to it in the meantime, the better."

There are also millions of public sector employees who will now need to work remotely. For their colleagues in IT and digital roles striving to ensure they can do so as effectively as possible, the hours are likely to be long, and the work underappreciated.

We will continue to report on this work, and we hope you will continue to read.

As always, get in touch with us if you or your organisation has a story you think is worth sharing; you can email me on sam.trendall@dodsgroup.com.

So long as public sector technology professionals are still doing important things, we will still be here too. It is the least we can do.

 

About the author

Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology

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