China is harnessing digital technology to screen arrivals to the country’s airports. It is an impressive digital effort that illustrates how digital technology can be called to action to help the government control what is now acknowledged to be a global pandemic.
I just returned to Shanghai following a COVID-19 inspired extended New Year’s holiday and went through this process just a few days ago. What amazes me is that China got this all up and running in but a few short weeks. China marshaled all the resources at its disposal, enlisting the same tech companies that make China a fintech and AI super-power, to help control the spread of disease. Many of the systems are not particularly complicated and focus on form-filling, while others use AI facial recognition to good effect. The key is that they come together to keep track of and monitoring infected people.
I’m going to walk you through the process that I just went through because it was smooth, relatively efficient, and relied on digital.
I’m going to walk you through the process that I just went through because it was smooth, relatively efficient, and relied on digital. A model for other countries? Yes, probably, though I have no illusion that other countries can pull this off as well as China has. I also understand people’s reluctance to be tracked digitally, and this is probably one of the better examples illustrating society’s need to track contagion versus the individual’s right to privacy. While this is not an issue in China, news reports from the West have voiced apprehension.
Is there a lesson here for digital transformation or innovation programs in the finance or corporate world? I think so, the institutional bias against innovation or digital can be deeply ingrained and hard to overcome, but when confronted with disruption on this scale, the barriers to digital come down simply because they have to. China’s experiences with coronavirus also give us a hint as to the role that digital will play in the coming year as we try to minimize human contact yet still provide the services our clients required. A challenge digital is ready to rise to, not just in China.
As with all things in China, the arrival process starts with the humble QR code that takes the passenger to a screening form used by the arrivals teams in China.
QR code leads to a pre-flight questionnaire.
QR leads to this pre-flight questionnaire
Critical questions include countries traveled to in the past 14 days, proximity to infected persons, and COVID-19 symptoms.
The questionnaire does not disqualify you to fly to China. Instead, its intent is to put ground staff at China’s airports on alert before you arrive so that they can determine the level of caution to be taken at the airport and who may need to be segregated.
Actual pre-flight screening is conducted by ground staff at the departing airport who are responsible for temperature checks before boarding, which was done at the check-in counter and at the gate before boarding.
QR codes demonstrate their utility yet again, and while some continue to call them dated, I disagree. I see this as a prime example of how they’re dead simple, cost next to nothing, and excel at creating a bridge to the digital world. Airlines flying to China are merely printing them out by the thousands and pasting them to check-in desks for passengers to scan. Tough to beat simplicity.
2. Arrival in Shanghai
Here the process becomes decidedly non-digital. Passengers are brought from the airplane in small groups with a minimum of contact. Passengers from one flight are not allowed to mingle with those from another, and we were held at the entry gate until passport control allowed our group to walk out and be processed.
Protective gear is worn by all security staff.
Here the digital forms we filled out online were passed out again in paper copy. A not-so-digital solution but for a reason. The digital forms were available to ground-staff online via QR code scan, but we were asked to fill out the forms in front of a security person who asked and observed our answers to his/her questions. Anyone gaming the digital system would potentially be caught at this stage. My bet is that once flight levels start to increase and more people need to go through the system, the digital versions will suffice.
QR Code scanned by security to access your completed form.
3. Police registration:
Many do not know, but all foreigners staying in China must register their stay with the local police. This is usually handled automatically by the hotel, as it is in other countries like Italy who have a similar system. Foreign residents residing in China need to register their home address with the police and take a quick trip to the police station when we move apartments.
To avoid human contact and potential contamination at the police station, the home registration process was digitized. One interesting feature of the registration is that it uses facial recognition AI to verify the identity of a registrant to the passport. When your passport photo is uploaded, text recognition fills in all of the relevant fields. Then you upload the “front photo,” a picture of your face, and your passport, and AI matches the passport photo to the user. Done! A great example of a digital system that will supplant the physical long after COVID-19 is gone.
Ironically, the first time I saw this used in China for foreigners was for a very different use case. Mobike, the bike rental service, needed a way of registering foreign bike renters and confirming their identity. A great example of how technology can be borrowed and put to work for a new use.
The home registration app uses AI-based facial recognition to match the applicant to the passport. This tech will survive after COVID-19.
4. Ant Financial’s Health Monitoring App
All citizens in Shanghai are required to download the Ant Financial designed and built Suishenma mini-app to their phone. The app takes information on your location and uses an undisclosed algorithm to give everyone in Shanghai a Code that is either Green, Red, or Yellow. Before exiting your apartment building, you must show the security guard that you have a Green code to exit. Red and Yellow code holders have to stay home and quarantine.
The New York Times calls the app “a troubling precedent for automated social control.” Much of their argument is based on the app’s ability to send information to the local police. I don’t think the New York Times gets either the severity of the situation or the reality of life in China.
First, let me say that they’re right, this app’s goal is social control. China has 45 million people under quarantine in Hubei, and roughly 780 million, or more than half the population, are under travel restrictions. The app is an attempt to use a scalpel rather than a meat cleaver to ascertain who can go back to work and travel. I make no claim of perfection, but clearly, this is better than continuing to lock people away.
That the data is given to the police is a given; who else is going to intercede? Take, for example, a person with a red code who goes stir crazy and decides to go to the supermarket where they may infect others. Who else is going to handle this? So yes, the data goes to the police because there is no one else to handle these cases.
One critique I do support is that I wish the algorithm were more transparent. I think that understanding the algorithm will simply help people better understand how to alter their behavior.
Suishenma App results and download information in the elevator of my building
5. WeChat’s Daily Temperature Monitoring
Not to be left out, WeChat is also providing a critical mini-program to the fight against COVID-19. All residents in my apartment complex are required to download the WeChat Mini-Program HuiZhiLi and record body temperatures twice daily. The app is also used with the distribution of face masks and other social services requiring communication, WeChat’s specialty.
Notice board in my apartment complex showing instructions on how to download WeChat’s HueZhiLi and a list of tenants receiving masks.
Does digital work?
These apps can track people, help detect early infections, and help to isolate hot spots in the community. I think that they’re an important first line of defense against the coronavirus and an essential part of an integrated “smart city” solution to managing epidemics. If these systems help free people from quarantine, catch infections early, and allow better dissemination of public services like mask distribution, then they are unquestionably positive. That said, I don’t think we’ll know until this is over the actual role this digital technology played in combatting the virus. What we do know already from Italy is that unrestricted, untested, unmonitored populations spread COVID-19 at an alarming rate. My bet is that these apps could help Italy and the West and that Facebook or Amazon should start their innovation teams on it now.
Beyond digital, the unsung heroes: the neighborhood security guard and property managers.
As amazing as digital technology is, the bulk of the effort to reduce Shanghai’s coronavirus cases falls squarely on the shoulders of two critical institutions present at every Chinese apartment complex. They are the BaoAn who are roughly the equivalent of security guards; and the “WuYeGuanLi” or the property management office. Both of these roles exist in the West, but the Chinese versions serve as government emergency management staff. They are the boots on the ground against the coronavirus and do incredible work.
I told my property manager that I appreciated the work she was doing and that my coming home was due to her hard work helping to keep the rate of infection very low. She wept. When she regained composure, she said that many do not appreciate the work they are doing and how the long hours and abuse from unhappy residents were taking its toll.
The unsung heroes of this tragedy aren’t the digital apps that China launched but, the men and women on the front lines helping all of us remain safe and hopefully healthy.
Cover Picture: Canceled flights in red at Taipei Songshan Airport March 10, 2020
Rich Turrin is the international best-selling author of “Innovation Lab Excellence: Digital Transformation from Within” and an award-winning executive with more than 20 years of experience in banking and fintech innovation. He is an independent fintech and AI consultant living in Shanghai and helps clients navigate the uncharted waters of doing business in China. He previously headed fintech for IBM Cognitive Studios Singapore (IBM’s Innovation Lab) and worked for IBM China, where he led his team to win the prestigious “Risk Technology Product of the Year” award for his unique hybrid-cloud solution to risk analytics. His next book, “China’s Digital Currency Revolution: Profit from Banking Innovation that Will Shape our Future,” is due out in April 2020. Learn more: RichTurrin.com.