The Pandemic Is Spurring Adoption of Emerging Technologies

The long-term impact for agencies is likely to be profound.

The COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating the technology transformation that’s occurring inside and outside government.

The short-term impact of the transformation is being felt in our day-to-day lives as both individuals and enterprises rely on a variety of technologies to stay connected and safe. Since the pandemic’s outbreak, more employees are working remotely and connecting to their company information networks from home than ever before. Across industries, events and conferences are hosted on cloud computing-enabled video conferencing platforms in lieu of large in-person gatherings. And many organizations are increasing their mobile offerings as people increasingly rely on websites and applications for critical services from food delivery to stimulus payments

However, the pandemic’s long-term impact on how we use technology is likely to be even more profound. Emerging technologies, while already being used to track the spread of the coronavirus and find possible treatments and a cure, can help us recover from this devastating outbreak and prepare for future public health crises.

Given the government’s mission to protect and serve the American people, federal agencies must accelerate the adoption of emerging technologies to stay ahead of the curve. Aside from medical emerging technologies, such as precision medicine, three technologies seem ripe for boosting public health plans, programs and policies in the next stage of pandemic response: artificial intelligence, immersive technologies and edge computing. 

For example, the White House called on the scientific community in March to develop an artificial intelligence tool to help answer questions about COVID-19 by sifting through 59,000 scientific articles about the novel coronavirus for use by the global research community. Experts from government, the private sector and academia used AI to identify the online and journal articles on COVID-19 that should be included in the database. Finding and sharing relevant information about the disease has helped experts around the world respond to the health crisis more quickly and effectively.

In the future, immersive technologies such as augmented and virtual reality, which change or enhance our physical world, could help federal employees at the front lines during disease outbreaks. The National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could use AR- or VR-powered medical tools to create models of the disease or devise and test protective measures without fear of contracting the disease. The Transportation Security Administration could use virtual reality to train employees at airports for effectively screening and separating passengers who are sick.

And edge computing—a computing method that pushes data processing from a central location closer to where the data is collected, to the “edge” of an interconnected network of devices—could help ensure that information networks remain stable and operational during crises.

Medical and public health professionals could use devices connected through such networks to monitor patients or travelers, recording and analyzing information about their health or travel history. Since the data would be studied and stored closer to the smart devices that health professionals use and not at a central location, such as a legacy computer system, collecting information about hundreds or thousands of patients at the same time would not overwhelm government networks but instead efficiently deliver critical information directly into the hands of those who need it.

As government begins to implement emerging technologies, acquisition flexibilities could help get next-generation technology into the field more quickly. For example, the General Services Administration’s long-term government-wide contracts offer a simplified process for buying a variety of IT services more effectively, including some AI tools. Alternatively, incentive-based contracts, which encourage contractors to improve their performance and allow agencies to pay a fee for better performance beyond the base contract award, are appropriate for buying these technologies and paying the incentive fee based on a technology’s effectiveness, according to Federal Acquisition Regulations.

The current health crisis underscores the need to capitalize on emerging technologies to address many of the complex challenges that agencies face in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic—and to help federal employees meet many of the nation’s national security, economic and domestic needs. By thoughtfully adopting such new technologies, federal agencies will be better able to serve the public and fulfill their missions.

Katie Malague is vice president for government effectiveness at the nonpartisan, nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. The Partnership and Booz Allen Hamilton recently released “Cracking the Code: Harnessing the Exponential Power of Technology,” a report on how the federal government could benefit from emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, immersive technologies and edge computing.