What Tech Can Learn From Public Health

The recent outbreak of COVID-19 has thrust the field of public health into the spotlight, and it’s been fascinating to observe how it drives towards better aggregate health outcomes in the face of unprecedented challenges. It serves as an interesting lens through which to view societal problems in the tech field, which also deals with unprecedented challenges and exponential growth curves. 

Public health gives us an excellent paradigm to deal with unknowns. We don’t know what the deadliest diseases of tomorrow will look like, but we know how to deal with symptoms. For example, there’s no cure for COVID-19 yet, but countries have sound responses for it— quarantine to reduce transmission, treat symptoms using established methods, and encourage people to step up their personal precautions. Similarly we don’t know where tomorrow’s biggest data breach will occur or what the fallout of the next viral social media platform will be, but we do know that best practices like using a password manager and not believing everything seen online will help. The crux of the public health model is to focus on the things we can control, namely hygiene and prevention. This also helps with containing the problem while we seek to understand it. This approach can be massively helpful for tech, where age-old problems like bullying or rumor-spreading get supercharged thanks to the permanence and ubiquity of the internet. While we may still be grasping towards technical solutions to these problems, we can continue to apply the things we know from psychology and sociology to curb these behaviors in other ways similar to how we have offline.

With public health, we develop best practices and encourage widespread adoption for better aggregate health outcomes. These are often communicated to the public as good hygiene or simply as social norms. For instance we encourage people to wash their hands more— not everyone will wash as often or as vigorously as they should, but the more that do the less disease spreads. The same goes for vaccinations and public smoking bans. The beauty of these approaches is that these behaviors and interventions help the individual as much as they help society at large, and so the incentives for the individual are aligned with that of society. Governments and private entities help to promote these behaviors through educational campaigns, regulations, and by attempting to change the culture.

Tech can embrace a similar strategy of evangelizing good hygiene/best practices. We can encourage people to change passwords often and use long phrases instead of short, easily guessable words. We can promote media literacy by teaching people to look for sources and better discern fact from fiction when scrolling through their feeds. We can teach kids to not forget their humanity on the internet. All of these help individuals, but by getting enough people to do them we can get to better social outcomes, whether that means a population more resilient to data breaches or one where democracy is less easily hijacked. 

Public health develops standardized responses to different types of problems. For instance, long before a natural disaster or infectious disease strikes, guidelines are set that help federal governments decide how to help states, and to what extent. Understanding who needs to be at the table and being able to quickly get the right experts together to make decisions is important too— public health emergencies require not just doctors and epidemiologists but also economists and hospital administrators, among others a myriad of others. Standardizing the way these responses are coordinated helps to facilitate speed, which as we’ve seen can make a huge difference when dealing with exponential growth. Public health crises also require careful communication to the public, and must strike a fine balance between being informative and factual while also calming people down and avoiding spreading undue anxiety. It helps to be able to standardize what sorts of information and language to include beforehand so that wordsmithing does not become a bottleneck during a time crunch. 

This same kind of preparation and templatization would be useful in tech emergencies as well. If a hack exposes a population’s private information for instance, there might be a well-defined set of steps that follow: perhaps the government investigates after any criminally negligent or malicious behavior, while the general public is pushed to change their passwords, check if they’ve been affected, and learn how to get their rights. If cybercriminals take over public services with ransomware, perhaps a responsible agency launches a centrally coordinated response from a responsible agency to deal with the situation. If a widespread misinformation campaign is launched by an enemy state or group in a time of crisis, maybe there is an established protocol for cooperation between the government and social media companies in combating the spread of that misinformation.

There’s a lot of parallels between public health and tech, and it’s not random that terms like “viral” are shared between the fields. It’s an interesting moment to take a step back and observe how learnings in one field can be applicable to another. We don’t know what tomorrow’s pandemic or tech-driven equivalent may look like, but we can still use the lessons learned today to improve our responses tomorrow.