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Minding the information gap and why it’s important in tackling COVID-19

As the tech response to COVID evolves, it’s essential that accurate information is readily available to help tackle the crisis

By: EBR - Posted: Tuesday, December 22, 2020

"While the pandemic has been rife with misinformation and “alternate facts,” a lesser discussed problem has been the information gaps that emerged."
"While the pandemic has been rife with misinformation and “alternate facts,” a lesser discussed problem has been the information gaps that emerged."

by Trey Sexton and Stephen Robnett*

As the tech response to COVID evolves, it’s essential that accurate information is readily available to help tackle the crisis. While the pandemic has been rife with misinformation and “alternate facts,” a lesser discussed problem has been the information gaps that emerged. In the rush to share the most compelling stories of the moment, some topics are over-covered and others not at all.

Both experts and non-experts rely on published information to help form an understanding of the fast-changing crisis. As a result, identifying information gaps has never been more key to present the widest range of vetted facts to shape the best-informed opinions.

To determine what was published – and where attentions were drawn – Boston Consulting Group deployed contextual artificial intelligence (AI), a form of artificial intelligence data, to analyse more than 2,500 openly available, English-language news articles published between January and May 2020. The goal was to compare the total publications for a given topic and the reaction they received on social media. The project clearly revealed a disconnect in many instances between what newspapers and websites published and what the public was actually interested in reading.

Using unique publication count and social media interaction, we were able to rank different tech topics along these two dimensions [See exhibit below]. The count of unique publications on different topics at the top 250 outlets can be thought of as expert attention, while an index of social media shares, comments and other interactions is connected to public interest in the given topic.

Finding the gaps

Unsurprisingly, public interest was high regarding the immediate problems without easy solutions, such as remote learning, as parents sought ways to keep disruption to their children’s education to a minimum when schools shut their doors. Publications on the topic were relatively low, and parents looking for information on the topic took to social media.

The pandemic has brought a range of other mismatches as well. The public showed great interest in data analytics and 3D printing, while these topics saw relatively few publications. Publishers focused on telehealth as well as biotech and research, topics that saw some of the lowest engagement levels from the public. Only AI/Recognition garnered attention from the public and publishers alike.

Several topics received little attention from both the public and experts in publications despite their importance to technical response efforts. This mismatch between public interest and publication count warrants attention. Critical technologies need both expert and public engagement to be successful because they rely heavily on the input from both.

For instance, digital contact tracing is critical to tackling the pandemic, but was not heavily covered or discussed by the public. Contact tracing apps like Singapore’s TraceTogether app have multiplied thanks to efforts from the private and public sector. But their spread and adoption need the guidance of experts to ensure they protect users’ privacy and the support and trust of the public to spur wide adoption.

Additionally, cyber security has provided a critical underpinning for the estimated 300 million engaged in the remote work that kept economies running. The cyber risk profile for companies expanded during the pandemic in magnitude with transaction fraud and abuse increased by up to 20%. Meanwhile, the FBI experienced a 300% increase in cybersecurity complaints and Google reported that at one point it was blocking 18 million COVID-19 scam emails a day. Still, cybersecurity did not receive robust attention from the public or experts in publications.

Looking ahead

A successful response to the COVID-19 pandemic lies not just in the actions of a few political or business leaders, but in also in the actions of the global population. In order to raise awareness on relevant topics, information is key. Publications should seek to identify information gaps, checking for mismatches in what the public hankers for and what is being provided. Additionally, publications have the opportunity to drive conversations by ensuring oft-ignored topics like cybersecurity receive the visibility they need.

The content relevant to the pandemic and interesting to the public reader is rapidly changing. Continued surveillance of the information landscape will help direct attention to those topics which matter most. While we might expect a natural tendency of expert publications to correlate with public social media response, the reality is that journalists and experts must redouble their efforts to publish and promote accurate information through our communities.

*Associate, The Boston Consulting Group and Managing Director and Partner, The Boston Consulting Group
**first published in: www.weforum.org

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