The news: Researchers in the UK have calculated that its contact tracing app may have prevented around 600,000 cases of covid-19. The announcement is good news for the system—which underwent serious teething problems—and a step forward for exposure notification systems more generally.
What they found: The study, by a team of Oxford researchers, modeled the impact of 1.5 million notifications that had been sent by the UK’s NHS app between October 1 and December 31, when almost 2 million people were infected with covid-19. Their analysis showed that each person who tested positive and used the app to alert others sent out an average of 4.4 notifications; without this intervention, they projected, there would have been between 200,000 and 900,000 more cases.
The data show, as we have reported previously, that even modest use of such apps can have a significant impact: “For each 1% increase in users,” said the researchers, “we estimate the number of cases will drop by between 0.8% and 2.3%”
That’s good news for those who have been trying to understand the effectiveness of such apps, something that has been notoriously difficult to measure. Raphael Yahalom, a researcher at MIT’s Sloan School who has been studying apps like these throughout the pandemic, says that the paper “represents the most comprehensive systematic analysis to date of a large-scale deployment—and so, the most compelling evidence of efficacy.”
Why it matters: It’s difficult to study whether contact tracing apps work because privacy concerns have made analytics especially challenging, says Jenny Wanger, director of programs for Linux Foundation Public Health. Many covid apps use the Google-Apple protocol, which is a system that keeps users anonymous. That protects user privacy so well that it’s difficult for central health authorities or researchers to track back information or see patterns in the alerts.
To get around this, the UK study looked at how many notifications got sent and compared the data with what scientists know about the behavior of the virus itself. Without knowing exactly who received the messages, the researchers were able to model whether the app was making a difference.
That approach won’t work in every country with a covid app, though. Among other things, it requires some sort of centralized health system to track notifications. The US, for example, lacks a national, central database and instead uses a patchwork of state apps, although that could change with the Biden administration.
Still, now that this technology is almost a year old, we could see more studies on whether digital contact tracing is working. Yahalom says there are more efforts under way, and a Swiss study was released earlier in February (although he cautions that it’s hard to compare these studies directly).
Why we need to know: Exposure notification apps have had a tough time. In countries where they are voluntary, apps have struggled with low uptake and privacy concerns. But knowing that they’re effective may encourage some people to decide to download and use one. More data could lead to more investment and more downloads, says Wanger, whose work supports the development and analysis of exposure notification apps. And more users means more broken chains of transmission.
This story is part of the Pandemic Technology Project, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation.
Investing in women pays off
“Starting a business is a privilege,” says Burton O’Toole, who worked at various startups before launching and later selling AdMass, her own marketing technology company. The company gave her access to the HearstLab program in 2016, but she soon discovered that she preferred the investment aspect and became a vice president at HearstLab a year later. “To empower some of the smartest women to do what they love is great,” she says. But in addition to rooting for women, Burton O’Toole loves the work because it’s a great market opportunity.
“Research shows female-led teams see two and a half times higher returns compared to male-led teams,” she says, adding that women and people of color tend to build more diverse teams and therefore benefit from varied viewpoints and perspectives. She also explains that companies with women on their founding teams are likely to get acquired or go public sooner. “Despite results like this, just 2.3% of venture capital funding goes to teams founded by women. It’s still amazing to me that more investors aren’t taking this data more seriously,” she says.
Burton O’Toole—who earned a BS from Duke in 2007 before getting an MS and PhD from MIT, all in mechanical engineering—has been a “data nerd” since she can remember. In high school she wanted to become an actuary. “Ten years ago, I never could have imagined this work; I like the idea of doing something in 10 more years I couldn’t imagine now,” she says.
When starting a business, Burton O’Toole says, “women tend to want all their ducks in a row before they act. They say, ‘I’ll do it when I get this promotion, have enough money, finish this project.’ But there’s only one good way. Make the jump.”
Preparing for disasters, before it’s too late
All too often, the work of developing global disaster and climate resiliency happens when disaster—such as a hurricane, earthquake, or tsunami—has already ravaged entire cities and torn communities apart. But Elizabeth Petheo, MBA ’14, says that recently her work has been focused on preparedness.
It’s hard to get attention for preparedness efforts, explains Petheo, a principal at Miyamoto International, an engineering and disaster risk reduction consulting firm. “You can always get a lot of attention when there’s a disaster event, but at that point it’s too late,” she adds.
Petheo leads the firm’s projects and partnerships in the Asia-Pacific region and advises globally on international development and humanitarian assistance. She also works on preparedness in the Asia-Pacific region with the United States Agency for International Development.
“We’re doing programming on the engagement of the private sector in disaster risk management in Indonesia, which is a very disaster-prone country,” she says. “Smaller and medium-sized businesses are important contributors to job creation and economic development. When they go down, the impact on lives, livelihoods, and the community’s ability to respond and recover effectively is extreme. We work to strengthen their own understanding of their risk and that of their surrounding community, lead them through an action-planning process to build resilience, and link that with larger policy initiatives at the national level.”
Petheo came to MIT with international leadership experience, having managed high-profile global development and risk mitigation initiatives at the World Bank in Washington, DC, as well as with US government agencies and international organizations leading major global humanitarian responses and teams in Sri Lanka and Haiti. But she says her time at Sloan helped her become prepared for this next phase in her career. “Sloan was the experience that put all the pieces together,” she says.
Petheo has maintained strong connections with MIT. In 2018, she received the Margaret L.A. MacVicar ’65, ScD ’67, Award in recognition of her role starting and leading the MIT Sloan Club in Washington, DC, and her work as an inaugural member of the Graduate Alumni Council (GAC). She is also a member of the Friends of the MIT Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center.
“I believe deeply in the power and impact of the Institute’s work and people,” she says. “The moment I graduated, my thought process was, ‘How can I give back, and how can I continue to strengthen the experience of those who will come after me?’”
The Download: a curb on climate action, and post-Roe period tracking
Why’s it so controversial?: Geoengineering was long a taboo topic among scientists, and some argue it should remain one. There are questions about its potential environmental side effects, and concerns that the impacts will be felt unevenly across the globe. Some feel it’s too dangerous to ever try or even to investigate, arguing that just talking about the possibility could weaken the need to address the underlying causes of climate change.
But it’s going ahead?: Despite the concerns, as the threat of climate change grows and major nations fail to make rapid progress on emissions, growing numbers of experts are seriously exploring the potential effects of these approaches. Read the full story.
I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.
1 The belief that AI is alive refuses to die
People want to believe the models are sentient, even when their creators deny it. (Reuters)
+ It’s unsurprising wild religious beliefs find a home in Silicon Valley. (Vox)
+ AI systems are being trained twice as quickly as they were just last year. (Spectrum IEEE)
2 The FBI added the missing cryptoqueen to its most-wanted list
It’s offering a $100,000 reward for information leading to Ruja Ignatova, whose crypto scheme defrauded victims out of more than $4 billion. (BBC)
+ A new documentary on the crypto Ponzi scheme is in the works. (Variety)
3 Social media platforms turn a blind eye to dodgy telehealth ads
Which has played a part in the prescription drugs abuse boom. (Protocol)
+ The doctor will Zoom you now. (MIT Technology Review)
4 We’re addicted to China’s lithium batteries
Which isn’t great news for other countries building electric cars. (Wired $)
+ This battery uses a new anode that lasts 20 times longer than lithium. (Spectrum IEEE)
+ Quantum batteries could, in theory, allow us to drive a million miles between charges. (The Next Web)
5 Far-right extremists are communicating over radio to avoid detection
Making it harder to monitor them and their violent activities. (Slate $)
+ Many of the rioters who stormed the Capitol were carrying radio equipment. (The Guardian)
6 Bro culture has no place in space 🚀
So says NASA’s former deputy administrator, who’s sick and tired of misogyny in the sector. (CNN)
7 A US crypto exchange is gaining traction in Venezuela
It’s helping its growing community battle hyperinflation, but isn’t as decentralized as they believe it to be. (Rest of World)
+ The vast majority of NFT players won’t be around in a decade. (Vox)
+ Exchange Coinbase is working with ICE to track and identify crypto users. (The Intercept)
+ If RadioShack’s edgy tweets shock you, don’t forget it’s a crypto firm now. (NY Mag)
8 It’s time we learned to love our swamps
Draining them prevents them from absorbing CO2 and filtering out our waste. (New Yorker $)
+ The architect making friends with flooding. (MIT Technology Review)
9 Robots love drawing too 🖍️
Though I’ll bet they don’t get as frustrated as we do when they mess up. (Input)
10 The risky world of teenage brains
Making potentially dangerous decisions is an important part of adolescence, and our brains reflect that. (Knowable Magazine)
Quote of the day
“They shamelessly celebrate an all-inclusive pool party while we can’t even pay our rent!”