There is an old saying that there is an opportunity in every crisis. During the last few weeks of the COVID-19 crisis, digital technologies have proved themselves to be essential to the functioning of our society. It has highlighted the power of tech to help detect, track and treat diseases. Unfortunately, the crisis has also shed light on some of the barriers that are stopping us reaching that potential. Now is our opportunity to create a stronger digital Europe.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that yesterday was the best time to invest in our digital readiness. The second-best time is now. Europe needs to invest in technology for the public good, not as Member States but as one continent. Viruses and economic crises do not care about borders.
Digital technologies have been at the forefront of society’s response to the virus. Artificial intelligence is helping to provide citizens with the right information, to diagnose them from the safety of their own home, and even to test possible treatments for the disease. Just this month, a group of experts from eight European countries have developed a digital solution that can help track who you’ve been in contact with using an app on your mobile phone. Others too are developing similar initiatives. This type of digital innovation can help stop the spread of the disease while respecting our privacy.
Technology is also keeping and making life under lockdown a bit more bearable. Remote working and remote learning tools are minimising the disruption to our daily lives. Hundreds of digital companies are even offering communication, education, cybersecurity, 3D printing and other solutions free of charge for the duration of the crisis.
But there are limitations to what digital technologies can achieve without investment in our infrastructure. Although European networks are holding up so far, the European Commission has taken the precaution of asking content providers to reduce their streaming quality. Internet traffic into homes over fixed lines has increased by 30 percent across Europe according to Telefonica. In Italy, where the most stringent lockdown measures are in place, it is up 90 percent, says Telecom Italia.
"Europe needs to invest in technology for the public good, not as Member States but as one continent. Viruses and economic crises do not care about country borders"
We must also think beyond our city bubbles. Only one in ten people in rural areas have access to 4G let alone 5G, and only one in five Europeans have broadband connections of at least 100 Mb/s. Lockdown measures prevent people from using public internet access through libraries, schools or community centres. This is a serious limitation on the adoption of online working and learning methods for a large proportion of European society.
Beyond infrastructure, we also need to invest in digital public services, not least in education, allowing secure online training and exams, and in digital health services allowing video consultations with doctors, advanced diagnostics and development of new treatments.
Another obvious area is digital skills and jobs. Many jobs simply cannot be done from home, but we are also lacking nearly one million ICT professionals across the EU. This will only rise if we continue our online working habits after the crisis is over. Research shows that over half of European citizens will have to retrain in the coming years. Our teachers too need to be trained in new and innovative ways of learning.
All this investment will require an ambitious and future-oriented EU budget. Therefore, I was pleased to see President Von der Leyen’s recent announcement that the Commission would reconsider its initial spending plans. The original proposal only dedicated 3 percent to digital transformation, which was already far too low for our digital ambitions pre-COVID-19. Given the enormity of the current challenges facing us, this needs to be boosted significantly.
In addition, the crisis has given us a glimpse of the potential for AI and data to revolutionise the way we do medicine, but it has also drawn into sharp focus where we need to concentrate our energies. Artificial intelligence applications rely on vast amounts of data. The more and better-quality data you have, the better the results.
"Over the next months, we need to accelerate the implementation of a common European data space for health"
Today huge barriers remain to sharing and analysing health data across European borders. From country to country (and sometimes even within the same country) there is a patchwork of different formats and rules. In addition, a lot of health data goes untapped for fear of breaching privacy rules, and to additional legal uncertainty or restrictions in national laws. We also need to invest time and money into labelling and curating the data to make it usable for research.
What we are left with is a fragmented continent that is not making the most of the data at its disposal. Over the next months, we need to accelerate the implementation of a common European data space for health. Data essential for tracking and fighting diseases should be shared between the public sector, researchers and private companies while maintaining strong security and data protection safeguards.
One of the first steps could be to make electronic health records compatible across Europe, and clarifying and harmonising the data protection rules from country to country. We also need to boost funding into AI and health. This is an area where, despite the limitations, Europe is already strong and it would deliver large returns on investment.
The Coronavirus outbreak has ushered in a new era for digital technologies. We are at the forefront of attempts to tackle the Coronavirus and help society cope. Even in the midst of this public health crisis, we need to grasp the opportunity to digitalise and prepare ourselves for what comes next.