Crisis management requires good use of innovative technology

February 14, 2022 10:05
Photo: Reuters

The Omicron outbreak is very severe. In early January, many people listed as close contacts were sent to Penny's Bay for quarantine. The blunders and hiccups of the quarantine camp have left many residents and their family members upset. An angry resident appealed for “safety and dignity”, claiming calls to the camp hotline went unanswered for hours. Other distressing experiences included prolonged isolation, postponed tests, delayed meals, and more.

Hong Kong has encountered waves of crises, including super typhoon Mangkhut in 2018, social unrest in 2019, the scramble for masks and medical supplies at the beginning of the outbreak in 2020, and the recent outburst of people seeking quarantine. All of these have put the government's crisis management to test.

To cope with crises, internal and external communication and coordination are key. Therefore, we need to optimise the use of information technology in this digital age. May I suggest the following two approaches:

1) For the government, a central information platform to coordinate response actions

As pointed out by a group of Legislative Council members, all government departments should immediately deploy a common operational picture (COP) to enhance inter-departmental co-ordination. COP is a central platform that enables the exchange of information and facilitates coordination among departments in today’s changing environment. For example, the Centre for Health Protection (number of viral tests performed, occupancy rate of various quarantine facilities), Hospital Authority (number of admissions, clinic and hospital services), the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (food supply), the Education Bureau (class suspension arrangements), and the Information Services Department (refutation of rumors).

The Geotechnical Engineering Office has developed COP which uploads information on slopes and landslides to the cloud for integration, and displays the distribution of emergency events on a large screen, facilitating various departments’ response to natural disasters. This is a good example of communication within the government.

COP can provide the commander the whole picture of the situation for resource allocation. Therefore, in the case of the Penny's Bay camp, the government should improve logistics, such as to increase the number of 24-seat nanny cars and drivers (currently many idle school buses available), allocate bicycles or golf carts for staff in the centre to move around and deliver services to the residents, assign temporary workers from closed vaccination centres to assist the quarantine centre for services such as answering enquiry hotlines.

2) For citizens, a one-stop dashboard gives people peace of mind

At the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak two years ago, the government used an interactive map dashboard to release important information of the pandemic in real time to help people grasp the trend of the epidemic, it calms the general public.

Today, quarantined people, their relatives and friends are also disturbed by the confusion of information. If the authorities could release key information in real time, such as the number of daily tests at the quarantine centre, the meals of the day and the delivery times, the confirmed cases in their proximity on a personalised one-stop map dashboard, accompanied by a mobile application for real-time notification, people will be more well-prepared for the quarantine physically and mentally.

The government is often criticised for not making good use of information technology. To be fair, the government has learned the lessons, but it has not fully mastered the use of advanced technology. In Singapore which is No.1 in smart city ranking in Asia, and Shenzhen which is good at using smart technology to manage the city and fight the epidemic, most members of their leadership team have engineering or science training.

In the Prime Minister's Office of Singapore, among the Prime Minister and 18 Ministers, 14 have studied Mathematics, Engineering or Medicine; while out of the Shenzhen Mayor and 7 Vice-Mayors, six have studied engineering-related subjects at universities. In Hong Kong, however, less than half of the principal officials under the accountability system have received similar training, therefore, some wonder this is the reason why the local management team is not as capable as their counterparts in Singapore and Shenzhen of using advanced technology.

However, I believe the attitude of embracing innovative technology is important in the digital age. I hope that our officials can be open-minded and actively use information technology to deal with the crises. It will be a blessing to the public.

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Adjunct Professor, Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Engineering; Department of Geography, Faculty of Social Sciences; and Faculty of Architecture, The University of Hong Kong