But a lot is happening behind the scenes to expand these uses, some of it very quickly. Governments, airlines, employers, universities, and many other groups are intensely debating how and why people will need to show verified health records.
Some of the terms being thrown around are confusing, like “vaccine passport.” In some scenarios, your records might function like an actual passport—think of arriving at the airport in a new country, pulling out your smartphone, and scanning a digital record of your vaccination or negative test. But those records could also act like a work authorization at your job, or a pass to get into restaurants, bars, and shopping malls.
Proponents argue that digital health credentials could help us get back to “normal,” but there are lots of roadblocks to making these ideas a reality, both on a medical and technical level.
Immunization doesn’t mean safety
While several vaccines appear highly effective at preventing symptoms of covid-19, we don’t know whether they stop people from catching and spreading the virus asymptomatically. Trials of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine suggested it may limit transmission from asymptomatic carriers, but Pfizer and Moderna’s trials didn’t regularly test participants for the virus if they didn’t have symptoms.
More data is needed to prove conclusively that vaccination prevents you from giving covid-19 to other people, and how long immunity lasts. It’s also important to remember that what’s true for one vaccine may not be true for another.
Without these crucial pieces of information, vaccination credentials only prove that you received a vaccine on a particular date—not that you do not have and cannot catch the disease. In the meantime, a negative covid test remains the best evidence that you’re not contagious. And since tests are far from perfect, you should still follow public health guidance about limiting spread whenever you can.
Digital records help combat fake information
There is already a booming black market in fake test results that is diminishing trust in printed records and driving demand for cheat-proof digital documents.
Many governments, as well as airlines and other businesses are trialing or in talks to build “health pass” apps, which let users ask participating labs and health systems to send authenticated test results and other data straight to the app, bypassing verification concerns.
There are a lot of players in the field, including IBM, the Commons Project, and the Covid Credentials Initiative. They’re coming at the problem from different angles but are ultimately chasing the same goal: let people share required information about their health, while protecting other private information. Yet it’s still too early to rely on any of these for a fast and widespread solution.
Linking up systems is very difficult
Health-pass makers are mostly focused on test results for now, but any of those technologies could work just as well for vaccine records, if all the systems worked together.
Unfortunately, that’s a much bigger challenge than signing deals with a couple of big testing companies. Connecting any systems across borders means navigating a patchwork of languages, databases, and privacy laws. Even in the UK, where the National Health System maintains a database of vaccine recipients, the government has put any talk of vaccine “passports” on hold.
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!”