Distributed ledger technology could be used by front-line health care responders in the coronavirus epidemic to submit real-time information around the world regardless of government censorship. HashLog, a platform designed to publicly track coronavirus developments via distributed public ledger Hedera Hashgraph, could mitigate political influence involved in spreading information, according to Hedera Hashgraph cofounder and CEO Mance Harmon.

Should HashLog be used as a tool on the front lines of the viral outbreak, Harmon says the software makes it possible for first responders to contribute raw data in real time, which would then be collected in a global database. “Anybody can access and have insight into that raw data and maybe even use those tools that process the data into information, [making] it possible for us to get at that information in a more transparent way without the influence of politics that often changes the view into what reality is.”

The city of Wuhan in China’s central Hubei province is ground-zero for a contagion that has infected tens of thousands of people, and a death toll that continues to grow each day. As the novel coronavirus, also known as 2019-nCoV spreads to neighboring countries in Asia as well as to other parts of the world, reports of censorship of early warnings raised by doctors in Wuhan in December have surfaced, triggering concerns about the lack of transparency and under-reporting in official figures.

Highlights

  • “Blockchain plays a role in making sure that the data that is being used by healthcare professionals and government officials that are involved in fighting the coronavirus have a consistent view of the data across organizations. This is something new that’s not existed, and certainly it’s going to make the world a more efficient place. “
  • “What distributed ledger technology does for the first time is make it possible for each organization that is participating or plays a role in contributing new information to the common set of collective awareness or situational awareness, as well as consume information from it. A unified distributed database that gets updated in real time across all instances that are being run by all organizations, providing a single consistent view into the same information, a single source of truth.”
  • “Anybody that wants to download a copy [of the database] can do so and run it and have access to that stream of information in real time, just like anyone else might, regardless of where you live in terms of geography or political environment that you might live in.”
  • “There is a very active environment in health care in general for how to use this. I’ve attended healthcare blockchain conferences where large institutions, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, research universities, government agencies, they all come together and understand the promise this technology provides and are looking for ways to cooperate in order to create these single source of truth databases that make it possible to address these kinds of emergency situations in a more efficient way in the future.”

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The novel coronavirus has infected tens of thousands of people and is spreading worldwide. Photo by CDC

Suppression of information

Dr. Li Wenliang recently died from the coronavirus after he had alerted an online chat group of his medical school classmates to an outbreak of a virus similar to SARS in December. Li’s death has spurred outrage on Chinese social media over reports that Wuhan police then forced him to denounce his earlier warnings about the virus as an unfounded and illegal rumor.

“If the officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier, I think it would have been a lot better. There should be more openness and transparency,” Dr. Li told The New York Times in an interview before his death.

HashLog was created by blockchain applications developer Acoer to operate through Hedera Hashgraph to visualize the spread of the coronavirus. “There is a growing supply of data about the virus, but the information is not necessarily easy to visualize, consume or extract in a simple way,” Jim Nasr, CEO of Acoer, said in a press release.

“Anybody that wants to download a copy [of the database] can do so and run it and have access to that stream of information in real time,” Harmon said, “just like anyone else might, regardless of where you live in terms of geography or political environment that you might live in.”

As the Chinese government is reportedly tightening control over news coverage of the coronavirus as well as the spread of information on social media, scientists estimate that a far greater number of people have been infected than what the official tally reflects.

Residents in China are frequently seen wearing face masks to prevent infection. Photo by Macau Photo Agency

“We estimated that 75,815 individuals have been infected in Wuhan as of Jan 25, 2020,” wrote a team led by Gabriel Leung from the University of Hong Kong in the prestigious peer-reviewed British medical journal The Lancet. “If the transmissibility of 2019-nCoV were similar everywhere domestically and over time, we inferred that epidemics are already growing exponentially in multiple major cities of China with a lag time behind the Wuhan outbreak of about 1–2 weeks.”

On Feb. 7, Chinese President Xi Jinping told U.S. President Donald Trump over the phone that China has “full confidence and capability to overcome the coronavirus epidemic and the long-term positive trend of the Chinese economy remains unchanged,” according to Communist Party newspaper Global Times.

Harmon said hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, research universities, government agencies and other health organizations are looking for ways to work together to create a unified source of blockchain-enabled truth databases, to make it possible to respond to emergency situations such as the coronavirus outbreak more efficiently in the future.

Blockchain is also being used by insurance providers to ramp up the speed of coronavirus payout claims in mainland China. The use of blockchain in the insurance industry could also reduce fraud.

“The kind of system that I’m describing should make it possible for information to be submitted at the lowest levels. Those that are on the ground in real time, dealing with the disease, dealing with the infections at the unit level, the hospital level, the clinic level, they would have the opportunity to potentially submit that real-time information if they choose to do so,” Harmon said. “Of course, there are political considerations there, some governments may not like that. They may want to clamp down on that type of activity, and they could take steps to try and do so.”

See related article: In Conversation with Mance Harmon (Full Interview)

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Full Transcript

Angie Lau: Welcome to Word on the Block, the series that takes a deeper dive into the topics we cover right here on Forkast.News. I’m Editor-in-Chief Angie Lau, and today we dive into the 2019-nCoV, better known as the coronavirus that began in Wuhan, China in December 2019. Since then, fears of a global pandemic have led to borders shutting down millions of people in province-wide quarantines in China, travel bans and more.

On the human scale, we’re tracking a contagion that has now spread from Asia to Europe and now U.S. and Canada. Now, transparency and data is critical at a time like this, as important as the researchers and scientists and doctors working in real time to treat and cure it. Right now, prevention is the key against an invisible enemy. Blockchain technology is now also helping play a part with Acoer using Hedera Hashgraph blockchain, creating a coronavirus dashboard tracking Center for Disease Control and World Health Organization data for researchers. Joining us on this episode is Mance Harmon, CEO and cofounder of Hedera Hashgraph. Mance, it’s really good to talk with you again.

Mance Harmon: Thank you, Angie. I’m glad to be here.

Lau: I hope you’re staying healthy and safe there in Dallas, and talking with you from Hong Kong, based here in Asia I can tell you that we probably share similar global concerns. It’s that kind of world right now. But one thing about decentralized and distributed ledger technology is its 100% transparency and source of truthmeaning that it can’t be tampered with or alteredis really something that is critical to knowing how to fight this silent enemy.

Harmon: Yes, and blockchain — or Hashgraph in this case, using our technology — plays a role in making sure that the data that is being used by healthcare professionals and government officials that are involved in fighting the coronavirus have a consistent view of the data across organizations.

Lau: Yeah, as you said, transparency and using decentralized blockchain technology like Hashgraphhow does this help? What’s the sensibility here in terms of why Acoer decided to put this dashboard together?

Harmon: If you think about how agencies generally in the past have shared information in times of crisis, there’ve been a couple of models. The earliest model, of course, is where each agency has a local copy of the information, considered a local database, if you will, and then they somehow share information with each other out of band or not as a shared database. They will transmit information back and forth and then update their local copy of the database, that provides lots of opportunity for error or inconsistency in views into what is hoped to be a common set of information.

Then came along the opportunity to improve, and the improvement was a central database, a new architecture where a single organization maybe takes the responsibility for collecting all of that information from the various organizations that can provide updates and then make those updates. The problem with that particular model is that the agencies have to rely on the single organization to get it right, so to speak, to always stay online. In times of national emergency, there’s always concern that that agency may come under attack. Bad actors have an opportunity to bring down the central databases if they choose to do so, and it’s relatively easy to do so. Then the information is not available at all to any of the relying agencies that are contributing and consuming that data from the central database.

What distributed ledger technology does for the first time is make it possible for each organization that is participating or plays a role in contributing new information to the common set of collective awareness or situational awareness, as well as consume information from it. A unified distributed database that gets updated in real time across all instances that are being run by all organizations, providing a single consistent view into the same information, a single source of truth.

It has resilience in that if there are bad actors that want to attack the resources, they can no longer attack a single database. They have to attack a broad range of databases to try and have the same impact that they could before. So this tech makes it possible for those that rely on the information to have the single common view and know that it’s going to be there when it’s needed and update it and get those updates in real time. This is something new that’s not existed, and certainly it’s going to make the world a more efficient place.

Lau: Well, I can tell you, as we cover the story here in Asia and as we take a look across even the reporting from medical professionals and agencies, it is absolutely so fragmented. It’s as if the right hand does not know the left hand or even each finger on hands aren’t communicating with each other. Even the information getting out to the public is also truly fragmented.

We know from even an international level with the World Health Organization, such as Taiwan being regarded as a separate sovereign entity, not every country or not every sovereign is recognized by the World Health Organization. So they are not included in any of the real-time updates from the international community because of the political distinction that China has placed on it as to what’s happening with real-time numbers being reported in China, as is being reported and assessed with other agencies around the world.

Then you even have a group of researchers in Wuhan that are trying to communicate in an open source way and sharing the genetic code in a medical journal in the Western media to trying to get this information out to the global community. What I’ve just described to you is what is the reality right now. What you’ve described is what technologies and synergies actually should be in place.

Yet while the technology exists and while people are obviously incentivized to fight this battle collectively from a medical perspective, why aren’t the tools in place? You raise a very critical question about how potentially right now things are being built to address a problem that will reappearif it’s not this one, it’s going to be the next onethe question is, what can we do with more collective real-time access to sources of truth, medical information? How quickly, perhaps in the future, can we address contagion as a result of real access to real-time information?

Harmon: The organizations that are participating or would participate, they all understand that this technology holds great promise for making the real-time information both available and consistent to anyone that downloads a copy of the database. In our case, they could download an instance of our node, we call it a mirror node, and anybody that wants to download a copy can do so and run it and have access to that stream of information in real time, just like anyone else might, regardless of where you live in terms of geography or political environment that you might live in.

The tech is there and is being built out. As important as the technology is, the agreement by the potential participants, the health care providers, the government agencies that play a role, first responders, etc., they have to come to an agreement on how to represent this information in a format that is easily consumable. It’s one thing to just take a bunch of data and throw it into a database. It’s something very different to have people agree on how this data is going to be collected and represented in a meaningful way where it’s not just data, but it’s information.

Then client software that can visualize that information has to be built and written and made easy for that information to then be consumed by those that have an interest. What Jim Nasr has done here with Acoer is that they’ve taken the first step to do that. He’s working with the CDC and the WHO to begin pulling this information together from these different data sources. His intent is for HashLog to have additional sources of information, and he’s taken the further step of creating a visualization tool that can take that disparate information and begin to create a view into the collective information that you can’t see or, data insights that you don’t get if you’re just looking at one piece of information from one organization versus the collection as a whole.

But it’s going to take far more than tech, it really requires those that play a role in this kind of health care-related activity to come together and come to agreement on standards for the schema, if you will, of the database that will ultimately record and collect all this large massive data and then how it gets visualized.

Lau: The technology is there, but it will take international cooperation to use this as a standard. Is there a recognition that this type of tool is needed from a virology, infectious diseases point of view?

Harmon: I am less familiar with those health care professionals that are specifically looking at virology or the kinds of situations that we’re dealing here now with the coronavirus. However, what I can say is that there is a very active environment in health care in general for how to use this. I’ve attended healthcare blockchain conferences where large institutions, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, research universities, government agencies, they all come together and understand the promise this technology provides and are looking for ways to cooperate in order to create these single source of truth databases that make it possible to address these kinds of emergency situations in a more efficient way in the future.

Lau: One of the first doctors who tried to alert the Chinese public about the coronavirus outbreak, who was actually reprimanded by Wuhan police for “spreading rumors,” unfortunately had contracted the coronavirus during the early stages of the epidemic, and he has now passed away. This is a community in a country at odds at the moment with the transparency of information, the fear and the frustration of getting that information out. How does blockchain potentially circumvent this kind of obtuseness when it comes to information that people actually want, need and desire?

Harmon: The kind of system that I’m describing should make it possible for information to be submitted at the lowest levels. Those that are on the ground in real time, dealing with the disease, dealing with the infections at the unit level, the hospital level, the clinic level, they would have the opportunity to potentially submit that real-time information if they chose to do so. Of course, there are political considerations there, some governments may not like that. They may want to clamp down on that type of activity, and they could take steps to try and do so.

But with the toolset being in place, the client software, for example, that makes it possible for those that are first responders that are on the front lines to be able to contribute that raw data in real time, which then goes into this global collective database that anybody can access and have insight into that raw data and maybe even use those tools that process the data into information, then you will make it possible for us to get at that information in a more transparent way without the influence of politics that often changes the view into what reality is.

That is the promise, the distributed nature of the technology can enable the individuals to contribute to the big picture, and we certainly could do that today with little effort. Again, it just requires the coordination and understanding of all the parties on how to work together and to contribute that information.

Lau: One thing that is enormously clear is, with the coronavirus and really any kind of virulent strain that is easily passed on, is that early detection and early reporting is critical. When the public knows to defend itself either through self-quarantine or taking precautions like masks and limiting traveling in public, things like that, washing hands, these are ways that if people are aware of it, they can take precautions.

Unfortunately for a lot of people now quarantined in Wuhan, that was not an opportunity that many are saying was given to them, including this doctor who’s now passed away. So these are real critical questions and issues that are being bandied about. But at the end of the day, however we approach this, it must come with knowledge, it must come with information.

The next two weeks, the next two to three weeks will be critical to see what the numbers look like in terms of spikes. But this technology is here, and thank you for sharing a little bit more about potentially another tool in the kit to fight something like this and hopefully prevent an even wider spread of something as dangerous and potentially fatal as this coronavirus.

Harmon: Thank you, I must give the credit to Jim Nasr from Acoer. We’ve provided some of the underlying technology, but Jim is really the one that is driving this particular use of the technology and bringing together the various health care professionals and organizations that can make meaningful use of it that benefit the world. So kudos to Jim and in Acoer for doing this.

Lau: Thanks, Mance and absolutely, I look forward to talking to Jim in a future episode. Mance Harmon, everyone, CEO, cofounder of Hedera Hashgraph. Thank you so much, Mance, for joining us on this latest episode of Word on the Block, and thank you as well for listening in and stay healthy, stay safe. Knowledge empowers, and it’s also something that’s critical right now. I’m Forkast.News Editor-in-Chief Angie Lau. Until next time.

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