With ML, AI and advanced big data analytics, the public sector could avert panic and better manage crises, says Matone Ditlhake, Chief Executive Officer of Corridor Africa Technologies.

The top-of-mind COVID-19 pandemic has become a shining example of how a crisis can escalate out of control, with long-term impacts on economies and communities worldwide.

The global public sector has been largely reactive rather than proactive in managing this pandemic, and South Africa appears to be following the international playbook in terms of the measures and messaging it has put in place. Globally, we are seeing the panic around coronavirus causing potentially more long-term damage than the virus itself. While South Africa is following global best practice in dealing with the crisis, global best practice in healthcare is not successfully averting the impacts on markets and economies.

Ironically, we have at our disposal all the tools we need to more effectively manage crises, and predict and mitigate the damage they cause. Fourth industrial revolution (4IR) technologies such as machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI), along with tools such as advanced big data analytics, the Internet of things (IOT) and geolocation systems, can be harnessed relatively quickly and easily to enable the public sector to manage disasters far more effectively.

Whether the threat facing a nation is a pandemic, natural disaster or civil unrest, we now have the capability to track how risk is developing in real-time; overlay current data with historical data on the progress and outcomes of similar events to predict how it will progress; and forecast its impact on society and the economy. By mining data across public sector databases and unconventional sources such as social media and Google search terms, governments can put also themselves in a position to assess public sentiment and craft appropriate messaging to avert panic.

Disaster response teams should be using AI and other 4IR tools, instead of relying on more conventional means, to identify potential infections and ensure the necessary infrastructure is in place ahead of an outbreak.

Geolocation data can be analysed to track the spread of a pandemic, identify outbreak hotspots, and – along with IOT data – even determine changing patterns in consumer spending, which informs projections on VAT, tax and economic growth.

Based on international patterns, South Africa can likely expect a dramatic increase in COVID-19 infections. With it will come civil panic and economic impact we can ill afford, particularly in light of our fragile economy and healthcare system. To mitigate the risk, the public sector should be taking urgent steps to harness the technologies we have available to manage the looming crisis.