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Social media data could greatly aid in tracking COVID-19 worldwide – Toronto Star



WASHINGTON—Nine days before the World Health Organization announced that it had identified the novel coronavirus, a Toronto-based startup called BlueDot, which uses artificial intelligence to track the spread of diseases, picked up a local news article about an unusual cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan, China.

Researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital who have been using similar technology to scrape disease-related chatter from social media and chat rooms since 2006 also flagged the news story. A third machine learning tool picked it up too: The WHO’s own Epidemic Intelligence from Open Sources project, which is now scraping information on the global spread of COVID-19 from up to 120,000 articles each day.

The promise of melding artificial intelligence with digital epidemiology, which is the study of how diseases spread using the collection and analysis of large amounts of online data, has long since been established. But most of the information currently available to health researchers falls under the category of open-source data, meaning it’s publicly available.

The largest sets of nonpublic data — things like search queries, website access logs, private social media posts and location data — belong to large technology companies such as Facebook and Google. According to a new report from Duke University’s Centre on Science and Technology Policy, online platforms hold a gold mine of data that could help digital epidemiologists track the coronavirus more accurately.

Unfortunately, getting data from the internal servers of some of Silicon Valley’s biggest companies into the hands of government and academic researchers isn’t so simple. The primary obstacle is a set of concerns over the privacy of social media users whose data might be handed over by the companies. And the companies themselves must ensure they aren’t jeopardizing the trade secrets of their own technology.

Privacy concerns

“This data is a public good that should be shared,” Sarah Rispin Sedlak, one of the Duke researchers who on March 19 published the report on information sharing during an epidemic, told CQ Roll Call. “But something like that has to be done within a framework that ensures protections for both the companies and the individual users.”

“You need a legal and ethical framework that allows the company to share data in a way that is sufficiently protective of individual privacy and that the digital epidemiologists agree not to use that data for other purposes or send it elsewhere,” Rispin Sedlak said.

In 2008, Google unveiled a tool called Google Flu Trends that aggregated specific search queries related to flu-like symptoms to estimate how many people throughout the United States were infected at a given time, promising “an early-warning system for outbreaks of influenza.” But the tool never fulfilled its own promise — its estimates for the 2013 flu season were off by 140 per cent, according to WIRED — and it was the subject of complaints by privacy advocates.

Since then, data privacy has become a hot-button political issue. On Capitol Hill, members of both parties are working on comprehensive data privacy legislation, which could include provisions allowing better information sharing with the aim of improving public health. But those efforts have stalled because of the coronavirus emergency and the vagaries of an election year.

“I don’t think what we want to do is wade into the waters of broad privacy legislation,” Rispin Sedlak said.

However, as the coronavirus spreads and deaths from COVID-19 continue to increase, lawmakers could be spurred to action on a more narrowly focused measure related to public health.

Anonymized data

Last week, Facebook said it would begin sharing aggregated, anonymized location data and high-resolution population density maps with researchers at Harvard University’s School of Public Health, the National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan, the Gates Foundation and others trying to understand how the coronavirus is spreading around the world.

A Google spokesperson told CQ Roll Call that Google has not shared any location data but that the company is “exploring ways that aggregated anonymized location information could help in the fight against COVID-19.”

“One example could be helping health authorities determine the impact of social distancing, similar to the way we show popular restaurant times and traffic patterns in Google Maps,” the spokesperson said. “This work would follow our stringent privacy protocols and would not involve sharing data about any individual’s location, movement, or contacts.”

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But Rispin Sedlak says that search data, the likes of which powered Google Flu Trends, remains the most promising data for tracking diseases like COVID-19. But without establishing rules for how companies should anonymize it and researchers should keep it secure, it may not be shared anytime soon.

“Some sort of framework enabled by laws about how this exact type of data would be used for this exact type of purpose would be very helpful,” Rispin Sedlak said. “It would give the tech companies the rules of the road and some comfort that if they shared the data while following the rules, they would be safe from criticism over privacy concerns.”

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Sask. premier trails counterparts in attending COVID-19 media conferences –



Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe attended two press conferences this week, the fewest among Canadian provincial leaders not self-isolating.

Saskatchewan holds a daily briefing at 2:30 p.m. CST. This week four briefings were held, Thursday there was no public availability.

Moe attended conferences on Monday and Wednesday. 

Across the country, each province is dealing with its own unique COVID-19-related challenges.

As of Friday, Saskatchewan was third in testing rate among the provinces and had the fifth most infections.

In B.C., Premier John Horgan has been available on three occasions this week.

In Alberta, Premier Jason Kenney has appeared three times this week to field media questions and held a Facebook live with the province’s chief medical health officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw on Thursday.

In Manitoba, Premier Brian Pallister attended four of five media briefings.

In Ontario and Quebec Premiers Doug Ford and François Legault have held daily briefings.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford answers questions related to COVID-19. Ford has held daily media briefings during the week. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

In Atlantic Canada, the premiers of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador have held daily briefings.

P.E.I. Premier Dennis King was in self-isolation after returning from a trip to Boston and has been available via video.

Trudeau, federal cabinet and Sask. opposition leader available daily

The daily routine, if you can call it that, in various provinces is a news conference with the region’s top doctor and the premier. Some provinces separate the health announcements with those addressing other measures.

This week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau held a daily morning briefing outside his home while in self-isolation. His statement and question and answer are followed by another news conference attended by Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam and a variety of federal cabinet ministers.

Saskatchewan Opposition Leader Ryan Meili holds a daily video conference at 11 a.m. local. 

In many cases, Meili has asked for government intervention or action on a particular issue related to COVID-19. 

“Right now, people expect to hear from their leaders regularly, and want to know they’re taking quick action. That’s why we’ll keep staying in touch with the people of the province as much as possible, and continue to push the government to step up with more supports and more information,” Meili said Friday.

Sask. Opposition Leader Ryan Meili has held “virtual press conferences” seven days in a row. (Ryan Meili/YouTube)

Moe ‘leading government response’ says spokesperson

With the legislative session indefinitely suspended, the daily Question Period exchange and subsequent interviews of MLAs have disappeared.

The public, many of whom are now stuck at home, have taken to the online daily stream of the government update.

The live-streamed news conferences have significant audiences online. The Government of Saskatchewan Facebook page averages around 60,000 views per news conference. CBC Saskatchewan’s Facebook page averages between 30,000 and 40,000. 

Saskatchewan’s Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab has been the lone constant in the daily conferences.

Shahab, however, cannot answer questions about program spending, government decisions on support for low-income people and education plans for example.

The government has provided statements and teleconferences with various officials and ministers in the past few days.

A spokesperson for the premier said his attendance at news conferences is dependent on what the government is announcing on a particular day.

“Premier Moe remains actively involved in leading our government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic with the Chief Medical Health Officer and other senior health officials,” said a spokesperson for Premier Moe in a statement.

“Each day we evaluate what information is important to convey to the people of Saskatchewan. When we are communicating information regarding COVID-19 that is medical in nature, it is important for that information to be communicated by the Chief Medical Health Officer. When an announcement is made in regards to restrictions or resource supports, it is important for this information to be communicated by the Premier.”

“The Premier will continue to regularly communicate with Saskatchewan people through the COVID-19 media briefings, along with other methods of communication,” the statement said.

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Northern Cyprus reports first coronavirus death -Turkish state media – National Post



ANKARA — Northern Cyprus reported its first death from the coronavirus on Saturday after a 67-year old German tourist died in hospital in Nicosia, according to Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency.

The German man also suffered from the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and high blood pressure, Anadolu said. It said the man had been treated at the Dr. Burhan Nalbantoglu hospital in Nicosia.

Anadolu, citing a statement from the ministry on Saturday, said the total number of cases in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) had risen to 61.

Earlier this month, Ankara had said it sent 72 million lira ($11.16 million) in emergency financial assistance and medical supplies to the TRNC due to the virus outbreak.

The island of Cyprus was divided in 1974 following a Turkish invasion triggered by a Greek-inspired coup. The island’s Greek Cypriots live mostly in the south, and Turkish Cypriots in the north, and several peacemaking efforts have failed thus far.

($1 = 6.4530 liras) (Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu Editing by Frances Kerry)

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Winning the media battle against COVID-19 – The Japan Times



On March 12, the Sankei Shimbun ran an editorial urging the media to refrain from criticizing the government for its handling of the coronavirus emergency. The Sankei Shimbun was elaborating on a complaint made by former TV announcer Yoshiko Sakurai that the press was not properly instilling in the public a sense of solidarity in overcoming the crisis. Finding fault with authorities is “acceptable” when things are normal, said the newspaper, but during an emergency focusing on “Prime Minister (Shinzo) Abe’s political beliefs and trivializ(ing) his response to the national crisis” is not.

The Sankei Shimbun may be oversimplifying the reaction of outlets such as the Asahi Shimbun and the Mainichi Shimbun to the Abe administration’s handling of the matter. Certainly, there is a political element in those newspapers’ analysis of the government response, but they also ponder whether those decisions are effective in their coverage. This contrast has led to confusion over how the media should approach the situation, especially in the wake of the passage of a revised law to provide the prime minister with powers to declare a state of emergency and, as a result, potentially limit press freedoms.

On March 11, columnist Osamu Aoki wrote in the Osaka edition of the Mainichi Shimbun about his recent appearance on TV Asahi’s “Shinichi Hatori’s Morning Show.” He and others discussed the shortage of face masks for medical institutions. One “expert” said hospitals that specialized in respiratory problems should be prioritized for receiving masks.

The next morning, the health ministry tweeted a criticism of the program by name. The government had indeed made sure that institutions designated for fighting infectious diseases received priority for masks. But rather than accepting the criticism at face value, which is what usually happens with news-related information programming, “Shinichi Hatori’s Morning Show” pushed back, claiming that institutions specializing in infectious diseases had told them that they had not received masks from the government. Nor had they received notification that they would eventually be sent any.

Later, the Cabinet Office’s task force for infectious diseases tweeted that the claims made on “Shinichi Hatori’s Morning Show” about the government stance on revising the influenza law were wrong. Then, the publicity arm of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party joined in and tweeted a similar sentiment, again citing the program by name.

On March 7, Aoki says, the Mainichi Shimbun looked into the tweets and reported that the Prime Minister’s Office had instructed relevant bureaucrats to verbally object to specific news coverage that was “different from the truth.” However, it was TV Asahi’s view, based on its own research, that it was the government’s version of events that was different from the truth. Aoki blasted the exchange as a waste of time, and said the health ministry should devote more effort to boosting tests for the virus and improving crisis management.

According to online magazine Litera, the health ministry and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s publicity department also complained about a segment on TBS’s “N Suta” program on March 4, which featured an expert who commented that the coronavirus is a new type of virus that is easier to contract than seasonal flu. The health ministry tweeted that this is not the case, citing the World Health Organization, which said that the infectiousness of the coronavirus was “not that high” compared to seasonal flu. Litera points out that the expert, professor Harue Okada, who has been appearing on almost every news show for the past several weeks, was talking about infectiousness with regard to people’s immune systems. The LDP may be scapegoating Okada because she has been saying the government’s response has been too little, too late, and Litera says something similar is happening in the Diet. LDP lawmaker Kimi Onoda complained of the media’s coverage of toilet paper shortages and the misleading number of those infected. Litera thinks the LDP is spending an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to block criticism.

If that’s the case, it seems to be working. Litera mentions a BuzzFeed Japan reporter who tweeted that it was right for the health ministry to put pressure on the media by naming those who convey content that will cause anxiety. The Huffington Post reported that the health ministry objected to a story on CNN featuring Hokkaido University professor Hiroshi Nishiura, since CNN interpreted Nishiura’s findings as meaning that the real number of infected people in Japan was probably 10 times higher than the official number. Nishiura, who has worked with the ministry on making statistical models, subsequently released a statement through the ministry saying, essentially, that CNN was wrong. On at least one occasion, the ministry admitted it had spoken too soon, giving some credence to the notion that this media policy is preemptive rather than corrective.

These developments were discussed by journalist Koichi Yasuda and activist Yasumichi Noma on their web talk show “No Hate TV” on March 13. Noma compared the monitoring campaign to the activities of the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s dystopian novel, “1984.” The Ministry of Truth is the government’s propaganda generator, rewriting history and deciding what is fact in order to promote its interests. Noma thinks the current administration will mainly be remembered for the way it has manipulated narratives by changing or destroying documents or even not keeping records at all. The tweets from the health ministry, the LDP and the Cabinet Office targeting “Shinichi Hatori’s Morning Show” demonstrated a new front in this effort because they were well-coordinated. Noma even suspects they may have been written by the same person.

Yasuda’s concern is that outlets such as BuzzFeed are giving in to the pressure and not asking questions or digging for information. If they support the government line because they think they’re supposed to, then they are forfeiting their responsibility as journalists. To paraphrase a famous quote that may or may not have been uttered by English journalist George Orwell himself, the role of a reporter is to speak truth to power. Everything else is public relations.

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