A scientist’s opinion : Interview with Ray Pinto on Europe’s digital response to Covid-19

Ray Pinto, Digital Transformation Policy Director for DIGITALEUROPE, highlights the importance of harnessing the power of digital and of sharing essential data to fight the disease whilst maintaining data protection safeguards.

What is DIGITALEUROPE doing in response to this crisis?

Ray PintoRay Pinto: We are making digital-focused recommendations in collaboration with our Executive Advisory Group on Covid-19 that brings together senior executives from across regions and sectors. These recommendations are focused on the short-term response, steps to economic recovery (medium-term) and re-invention. The pandemic has been a real wake-up call on what we need to do in the longer term to make sure that Europe is resilient and ready for the next waves.

How well was Europe prepared digitally for the pandemic?

Ray Pinto: I think our infrastructure has stood up to the test. It has been able to support shifting the whole workforce and consumer population online. However, we are far from excellent, many businesses and institutions are not able to function in a normal way. Furthermore, there are still many regions in Europe that can’t access high speed connectivity, which is essential during an emergency situation.

A recent survey we conducted of 634 digital businesses of all sizes in Europe showed that their readiness to work from home was poor. There is not a culture or a managerial-level understanding of the technologies. Companies need to start moving now, trialling the technologies, ensuring compliance, training employees…The lockdown has shown how many businesses, including large established companies, didn’t have an e-commerce model. Those that have embraced and adopted e-commerce have been able to continue to sell their products online and thus, are far more resilient.

The situation has also affected governments, it has been difficult for European Parliament members to meet and vote at a time when legislative branches need to work quickly. I think they suffer from old legacy systems and outdated rules.

It is worth recognising that many information and communications technology (ICT) companies have stepped up to provide tech support and free licensing, supporting governments and hospitals in their response to the crisis and helping to mitigate the effect of the virus on the wider economy.

How are digital technologies helping to tackle Covid-19?

Ray Pinto: At our recent webinar on the use of health data in a pandemic, experts discussed how access to data and AI algorithms are helping to develop candidate vaccines. We already have strong vaccine candidates when everyone said it would take a lot longer. A couple of institutions have been able to quickly aggregate data, and have made it accessible, helping to monitor and track the disease.

Digital technologies are allowing research to be carried out online and across different countries. The sad news however, is that data is not being shared due to strict restrictions in some member states.

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was created to harmonise the rules so data could flow, but article 89 allows member states to create their own rules for health data. Because these rules differ between member states, it is making it difficult for researchers to get data quickly. In some cases, because it is completely anonymised, this data is less valuable.

Another problem is that for research, the secondary use of data is extremely important; data needs to be trialled in different ways and at different times. Rules in some member states are creating huge obstacles, for example many countries only allow six researchers to work with a specific data set. This is unacceptable, you need many researchers working on many data sets to find a cure.

Technology and AI algorithms are only as good as the data that is fed into them. Limiting the data sets limits the ability to do research. Sharing data outside of the EU is even more complicated, only a handful of countries have an adequate level of data protection. The solution is not to get rid of data protection, but to use GDPR as it was intended to be used. Loopholes that allow states to restrict data within their national boundaries need to be overcome quickly in order to deal with this crisis.

How do you envision Europe’s digital future?

Ray Pinto: The money that has been earmarked for the Digital Europe Programme and related H2020 projects is very low. Increasing Europe’s digital capacity and capabilities will require a lot more funding. We propose looking at the other sectors being funded such as agriculture, infrastructure, cohesion…and ensuring that up to 10% is put towards digitalisation. This will make these sectors not only more resilient but greener as they become more efficient, use less energy and produce less waste.

In the health space, the Commission is doing excellent work. Since last year, 22 member states signed up to sharing prescriptions and only summaries of health records. It’s a start but much more needs to be done. It is very difficult for the Commission to get member states to agree to expand this to electronic health records. I think those countries sharing their health data will benefit citizens in both the short and long term.

Although GDPR gives individuals complete control over their health records, it is near impossible for individuals to transfer these records over a border in the EU. I really hope that this will change quickly in light of Covid-19. Further delay is no longer an option.

Could you comment on the Commission’s response to the pandemic in terms of stimulating digital technologies and data sharing?

Ray Pinto: I think they moved as quick as they could. They have been working around the clock to ease regulations and restrictions on industries and approving huge amounts of money to help member states that have been worst affected. Was it enough? Probably not, because they cannot just switch buttons and put the whole of the EU under confinement. The EU is extremely limited in its ability to take action across the member states. If anything, we need a stronger EU commission that is empowered by member states to act in an emergency such as this, so it can ensure that data can flow, that money goes to where it is needed, and to put adequate control measures in place faster.

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