How To Track The Pandemic Using Mobile Data, With Nuria Oliver
When the coronavirus pandemic swept across the world in early 2020, Spain was one of the countries hardest hit. At the time, Nuria Oliver was a telecommunications engineer working and living in Valencia, one of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions. She’d spent years working for companies like Microsoft, Telefonica, and Vodafone, using AI to analyze data from mobile networks to explore big questions about healthcare, economics, crime, and other issues—so she realized right away that mobile data could be an important tool for government leaders and public health officials trying to get a handle on the spread of COVID-19.
With the backing of Valencia’s president, Oliver put together a team of scientists to analyze network data to understand among other things, how much people in Spain were moving around. That helped them predict infection rates, and to see whether lockdowns were really helping to contain the virus’s spread. The team’s predictions were so accurate, in fact, that when they entered an X Prize Foundation contest seeking the best AI-based pandemic response systems, they won first place. Nuria Oliver joins Harry to explain how they did it—and why mobile data makes a difference in the fight against the pandemic and other health threats.
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Harry Glorikian: Hello. I’m Harry Glorikian. Welcome to The Harry Glorikian Show, the interview podcast that explores how technology is changing everything we know about healthcare.
Artificial intelligence. Big data. Predictive analytics. In fields like these, breakthroughs are happening way faster than most people realize.
If you want to be proactive about your own health and the health of your loved ones, you’ll need to learn everything you can about how medicine is changing and how you can take advantage of all the new options.
Explaining this approaching world is the mission of my new book, The Future You. And it’s also our theme here on the show, where we bring you conversations with the innovators, caregivers, and patient advocates who are transforming the healthcare system and working to push it in positive directions.
When the pandemic swept across the world in early 2020, Spain was one of the countries hardest hit.
At the time, Nuria Oliver was a telecommunications engineer working and living in Valencia, which is one of 17 autonomous regions in Spain, the equivalent of U.S. states. She’d spent years working for companies like Microsoft, Telefonica, and Vodafone, using AI to analyze data from mobile networks to explore big questions about healthcare, economics, crime, and other issues. And Oliver realized right away that mobile data could be a very important tool for government leaders and public health officials trying to get a handle on the spread of COVID-19.
She went to the president of Valencia and proposed putting together a team of scientists who could support government decision makers by analyze mobile network data. She thought the data could reveal, among other things, how much people were moving around. That, in turn, could help predict infection rates, and it would show whether lockdowns and other restrictions on people’s movement were really helping to contain the spread of the virus.
The president immediately accepted her proposal and appointed her to the honorary position of “commissioner to the president on AI and data science against COVID-19.” And as it turned out, the predictions from Oliver’s group were startlingly accurate.
In December 2020, when the group entered a contest sponsored by the X Prize Foundation for an AI-based pandemic response systems, they won first place and wound up splitting the $500,00 prize with a second-place team from Slovenia.
And for today’s show, Nuria Oliver joined me to explain how they did it. We also talked about the difference data is making in the fight against the pandemic, and how our phones are helping to keep us healthy.
We recorded this a couple of months ago, in mid-October. But obviously the pandemic hasn’t receded at all since then, so everything you’ll here is still relevant.
Harry Glorikian: Nuria, welcome to the show. It’s so great to have you on. I know there’s a little bit of a time difference because you’re over in Europe right now. But Nuria, I was looking at your background and I was like, Oh my God, I’m like, if I try to go through her entire CV like we’re going to, it’s the hour of the show is going to like completely go just for the CV. But I wonder if you can sort of give the listeners a quick version of of how your interest in the connection between technology and human behavior has developed over the years. What big themes did you focus on in your various academic and industry posts at MIT Media Lab, Microsoft Research, Telefonica, Vodafone? I mean, those are just a few of the things that you’ve done. You know, when I when I was think I’ve done something with my life, I look at people like you and I’m like, I’ve got so much more to do. But if you could sort of give us that a short version, that would be awesome.
Nuria Oliver: All right. Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here. Let’s see. So I’m originally from Spain. I studied electrical engineering and computer science in grad school, telecommunications engineering, and since I was very small, I was always fascinated by the idea of being a scientist or being an inventor or being a researcher and discovering something or inventing something new or for answering questions that hadn’t been answered before. So I love mysteries and logic problems, and these are difficult things to solve. I wasn’t sure how to kind of channel that. And when I studied telecommunications engineering, which was six years at the time, it was like together with a master’s or equivalent degree. In my fourth year, I did a project on the parallelism between neural networks and human brain and the human brain and the human sort of like neurons. And it was the discovery of artificial intelligence to me, and it was pretty much love at first sight. I realized that it was fascinating to build technology that could do something intelligent. It sounded like science fiction to me. And I always have had this vision that technology is a great tool that we can use to have positive social impact and to improve the quality of life of people. So this has been my vision since I was also very small. So with artificial intelligence, I thought, Well, if I could build computers that could understand people, that would be the first step to build computers that can help people.
Nuria Oliver: So I started focusing on modelling human behavior, and then I went to MIT to do a Ph.D., and that was the main focus of my work. So I built one of the first facial expression recognition systems in the world that was working in real time, or I made an intelligent car that could predict the next maneuver that the driver would do. I participated also in the first smart clothes fashion show in the world in 1997. So it was really an exciting time to be at the Media Lab, and I had a chance to develop new models of different aspects of human behavior. Then I went to Microsoft Research and I continued my work on that topic. I built an intelligent office. I did with a colleague, a system similar to the Minority Report, where you could control the computer. You see your hands in the air. And in 2005, I realized that I had spent a decade building, you know, smart computers, smart cars, smart rooms, but even at the time, the most personal computer was the mobile phone, and it probably was going to be the mobile phone. And I felt that, you know, we weren’t really leveraging the opportunities that the phone was bringing to us in terms of helping us.
Nuria Oliver: So I decided to explore that topic, and I started working on projects related to the intersection between mobile phones, health and wellness. So I did a project to detect sleep apnea on the phone. I did another one to help people achieve their exercise goals using what is called persuasive computing, which are sort of like theories of human motivation and psychology, but implemented like on the phone to encourage people and motivate people to change behaviors. I got the offer to move back to Spain at the end of 2007 and never thought I was ever going to go back to Spain, but it seemed like an interesting opportunity to create and lead a research area within a very large telco, Telefonica, the largest telco in Spain. And with my family, we decided, okay, let’s try. So we move to Barcelona, and the challenge was to create a top research team from scratch in a topics that were not the traditional telco topics at the time. At the time telcos were sort of like networking companies, right? And I was doing, you know, big data, you know, data science, artificial intelligence topics that today are at the core of what a telco company is. But in 2007, it wasn’t really the case yet. So so we continued working on on on two streams on the one hand, making phones the serve their name or of a smartphone, basically.
Nuria Oliver: So we did a project to help people take their medication correctly, for example, and support medication adherence, particularly in the elderly. But the other strain was a new stream for me, which was because of working in a telco, we could have access to large scale, anonymized mobile network data. So data about an entire city or an entire country, fully anonymized, you know, fully non-personal data and that data transfer that is very valuable for social good. For example, when there is a natural disaster or when or to infer the socioeconomic status of a region or to understand crime and predict hotspots of crime in cities, or to help when there are pandemics. So those are all areas that I started developing and exploring while at Telefonica, and I created the area of data science for social good. I was in Telefonica for eight years and then they offer. I left Telefonica and I joined Vodafone as director of research in data science globally. And again, the challenge was similar to create from scratch research activities across, I don’t know, 20 different countries in Vodafone. I also created the area of data science for social good. And then I left Vodafone. But I continue with a connection with Vodafone because I’m still chief scientific adviser to a think tank that Vodafone has in Berlin.
Nuria Oliver: Since 2015, I had, while I was at Telefonica, I had also gotten involved with an NGO, which is based in the US, which is called Data-Pop Alliance, and it has been created by the MIT Media Lab, the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, the Overseas Development Institute and Flowminder. And the goal is how to leverage data and AI for social good. So it was very aligned with what I had been doing, so I’ve been collaborating with them in parallel, developing a lot of projects in developing countries in showing the value that data analyzed with AI methods can have to actually accelerate development of a lot of regions. Then in 2018, I became very involved with a very exciting European initiative called ELLIS, which means the European Laboratory for Learning and Intelligent Systems, and it is the result of a grassroots movement of the European scientists. And our goal is to contribute to Europe’s technological sovereignty in AI by attracting and retaining the best scientists in AI to Europe. And to do that, we need to, you know, change a little bit how things are done in Europe, and we’ve launched a number of actions and activities that we can possibly talk about later. And then finally, in March of 2020, given that I had been working for over a decade on how to use data and AI for social good, including how to use it in the context of infectious diseases and pandemics, I felt that for the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, for the coronavirus pandemic, the governments weren’t going to use all these advances that we had made in science, in actually analyzing data, using AI methods to support decision making.
Nuria Oliver: So I felt that maybe it was a missed opportunity once again to actually have this disconnection between where science is and where sort of like the real world are and the decision makers are. So, I had an idea in March of 2020, which was proposed, my idea was to propose to the central government and also to the state, the state government, Spain is divided into 17 autonomous regions, which are the equivalent to a state in the US, and they have presidents which is equivalent to governors in the US. So I proposed to the president of the region the idea of having a team of scientists working really closely with the decision makers in sort of like performing relevant models and data analysis that would support their decisions. And they said yes immediately and the president of the Valencian government, and they appointed me commissioner to the president on AI and data science against COVID 19, which is an honorary position. And basically I have been leading a team of 20+ scientists in there since then, working on on four big areas and the intersection between data AI and the pandemic.
Harry Glorikian: Yeah, I was, you know, it’s interesting that you say they don’t always take advantage of things. I remember. I have to go back in my memory 20 years ago, actually, because it was right about the time my son was born, I pitched to Telefonica about location-based services. And at the time, it was almost impossible for people to wrap their head around this idea, that location intertwined with data, and giving somebody the information they were looking for to help them make a decision was going to be a, now what is it? You know, it’s a billions and billions of dollars of an industry, but at that time it was people couldn’t wrap their head around it. So I think if you’re ahead of your time, it’s always it’s always difficult for the average person to sort of understand where things are going.
Nuria Oliver: Certainly. Certainly this is certainly the case. And I think the case of our experience in Valencia, we were lucky that there was sort of like a confluence of factors that really enabled this initiative to not only to happen, but to actually be sustained over time for almost two years now, or a year over a year and a half. And to have a certain level of impact and success. And I think one of the elements was the government had already been working for a couple of years prior on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the profound transformation of our society because of disciplines like biotechnology, nanotechnology or artificial intelligence. They had published their study on artificial intelligence. They had realized that the public administrations haven’t undergone the digital transformation that most companies, particularly large companies, have already undergone, and they recognize that there was this opportunity to transform the public administration and become more data driven would become more digital. So I think when I made this proposal, they were in the right mindset and they were already thinking about this. And there was also a relationship of trust with me because I had collaborated with them in drafting the AI strategy.
Nuria Oliver: And they they knew that it was a serious effort. They knew that we were going to try to do our best. So I think there are all these different elements that that really helped. And then there was one director general, well there is still there, working for the president who actually comes from the U.S. She’s Spanish, but she spent a lot of time working in the for the mayor of New York City. So she had a lot of the same mentality that I had as he was a little bit of an agent of change within the government. She’s been a member of our team since the beginning, coming to every single meeting, and that is absolutely necessary because they are the ones that are going to benefit from whatever we do, and they’re the ones that need to use it. So they need to see the value and they need to understand it. So I think it’s very important to have this sort of like mixed, multidisciplinary, multi-institutional teams.
Harry Glorikian: So I mean, I applaud them for seeing that because if you have ever watched our Congress or Senate interview technology people,
Nuria Oliver: Yeah, I’ve seen it, it’s famous.
Harry Glorikian: It’s quite fascinating. Some of the questions where you know, you realize they know so little about. These technologies or their impact and don’t understand like. All of these things are like you should be looking at them as nuclear weapons, how do you use them, how do you manage them, how do you use them for good? How do you put things in place to protect people, right?
Nuria Oliver: Yes. And the other important message is, I don’t think it is acceptable for any policy maker or any representative of citizens to publicly acknowledge, “Oh, I don’t know anything about technology.” I don’t think that is acceptable because technology permeates everything, every single aspect of our lives. So it’s it’s such a fundamental element of our society that you need to know a lot about technology if you really want to make the right decisions about any topic, absolutely any topic, right? So I think that’s definitely something that at least in some governments, they recognize that there is a need for identifying new profiles to work in the public administration, creating new positions, more tech savvy positions, data scientists, but also educating the policymakers and doing courses on on relevant topics related to technology. I think this is very, very, very important.
Nuria Oliver: So let’s pivot now because I think all of this technology came really in to a lot of good or use when COVID 19 came along. All right. So you know, you one of the data I think you collect in Valencia is mobile data, right? Exactly. Understanding how this data helped you understand and manage the course of the pandemic, can you talk about that a little bit because I think that that’s important for people to understand.
Nuria Oliver: Yes, so we had four large work streams in this data science for COVID-19 initiative, and the first one was modeling large scale human mobility. Why? Because an infectious disease like COVID-19 that is transmitted from human to human, it doesn’t become a pandemic if people don’t move. And that’s why we have been confined, right? Because it’s our movements, the ones that are propagating the disease. So understanding how people move, determining if the confinement measures are working or not, is very important to make the right decisions and the right policies.
Nuria Oliver: So there was another lucky factor that I didn’t mention, but that has really been very helpful in Spain and is the following factor. For two years prior to the pandemic, the Spanish National Office of Statistics had been drafting a collaboration agreement with the three largest telcos in Spain, which are Telefonica, Vodafone and Orange.
Harry Glorikian: Mm hmm.
Nuria Oliver: So. So let me rewind a little bit. So part of this transformation that we mentioned of society because you know of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, you know, an artificial intelligence part of this transformation is actually impacting the National Office of Statistics of everyone in the world where the traditional methods to build official statistics, which are via surveys, are susceptible to being improved, leveraging pervasive technology and sort of like big data. So there is a global movement in every National Office of Statistics, in pretty much of every country to explore how they could build official statistics through the analysis of data automatically without having to do surveys, because it’s very expensive and it doesn’t really scale. And that is why there is only one census every 10 years or 15 years, or in some countries, 40 years, because it’s just very expensive to do the census. So the Spanish National Office of Statistics, one of the statistics that they compute is commuting patterns, and they do it by doing surveys. And they thought, OK, maybe we can collaborate with the telcos and analyze aggregated data from the antennas, from the cell phone antennas to infer these mobility patterns automatically without having to do surveys. So that was a very long process of negotiations and getting all the approvals under the data protection agencies and from the legal departments of all these telcos, blah blah blah. So that took them a huge amount of time. So in November of 2019, right before the pandemic, they got all the okays necessary, and they launched the pilot to see how well they could create commuting matrices from this data that was actually a relatively controversial project.
Nuria Oliver: It appeared in the media. It wasn’t communicated very well because they were saying the National Office of Statistics is tracking you, which is completely wrong. They weren’t tracking anyone. But anyhow, when the pandemic happened, they already had all the infrastructure in place and all the legal agreements in place to actually get access to the mobile network data from the operators and combine the data and compute mobility matrices out of the data so that that mobility piece that we did was relatively easy in the sense that the data access was already available. So the vice minister, the vice president of Spain, Calvino, she appointed us the pilot region to be able to use that data during the first wave of the pandemic, at a time when there were really, there was almost no data and it was very hard. We were making a lot of decisions kind of blindly. So through the National Office of Statistics, we were able to access that data and then identify and measure to which degree the confinement measures had impacted the mobility of the population. How successful the stay at home campaign was, how much labor mobility was impactd, h ow was the radius of movement reduced because of the measures? But also what was the impact of those measures on the spread of the virus? Because at the end, you also want to know, OK, is this really slowing down the spread of the virus or not? Right. So we were also able to do that. Yeah.
Harry Glorikian: So but now you carried out a large scale survey of the people in Valencia. And so when you look at survey data compared to mobility data, how do you think about that?
Nuria Oliver: Yeah, so so the first line of work was the mobility analysis. Then we have two more lines, one which might we might talk about later. One is the computational epidemiological models, the other one was predictive models. And then the fourth line was a citizen survey. And why did we launch this citizen survey? So we launched the survey because in March of 2020 and even today, there were a lot of questions that we couldn’t answer. We didn’t have any data sources. For example, what is the social behavior that people have? What is the emotional impact of the pandemic. What’s the resilience of the population toward all these measures. Are there tests, are people being tested. What is the prevalence of symptoms? Was the labor impact, the economic impact? What kind of protection measures are people taking? How are people moving? Are they leaving their homes, or are they taking public transportation? I mean, there were so many interesting questions that we couldn’t really answer, so we decided to ask the people to say, Well, let’s just draft, let’s design the shortest possible survey that would give us the most information about people’s behaviors and perception and situation during the pandemic. So we came out with 26 questions, which we translated to many different languages and the surveys deployed in different countries in the world.
Nuria Oliver: It has almost 700,000 answers right now. And one of them is in Spain, evidently. But we also have a very representative sample of in the, I think, in the almost 100,000 from Germany, Italy, Brazil, and the survey has been regularly used by the media, by the policymakers, but also by people to have a sense of how we are doing. So I think the survey has different angles to it. One element is giving a voice to people. You know, I think we have been subject to a lot of measures that have happened to us, but we as citizens haven’t had a lot of opportunities to really tell how we were doing and how the pandemic was impacting us and on our fears or what we were thinking. So the survey is a way to listen to to the people and to give them a chance to tell us every week how things are going. It’s also an incredible tool to really connect the citizens to the policymakers so they understand, for example, what’s the intention to get vaccinated. You know, we know since April of 2020, for example, that the most impacted group emotionally, psychologically is the youth.
Nuria Oliver: So the government can think, OK, we need to invest in programs for the youth. But we know that since April of 2020, it’s not that we know it now. We know it for over a year and a half from now. So there’s a lot of things that we know, you know, for many, many, many months. So that has been incredibly helpful. So the survey is completely complementary to the large scale mobility data. We do have a little bit of mobility information because we ask people their transportation means because we wanted to see people were walking or they were driving individually or they were taking public transport. And we did observe where public transport was kind of shut down for a few weeks or months, there was a huge increase in walking. During the first lockdown, especially. And then there was there wasn’t really a big use of public transportation until probably the fall of 2020 or even like the spring of 2021. So, yeah, we did have a little bit of mobility information, but very complementary to the large scale mobility that we could analyze with their mobile data.
Harry Glorikian: Yeah, I think this this sort of way that the government or your group is interacting with the people to sort of get this information. I mean, I think that’s a more organized and statistically significant way than Facebook or Twitter or any of these other big rooms that you can yell in, right? So, you know, it adds to the discussion.
Nuria Oliver: Yeah. I mean, we invested a lot of thought and a fair amount of time. We think the fact that we had no time because we had to react really quickly. But I think if we if we started this effort in mid-March, right, right at the very, very, very beginning of the pandemic. And I think we launched the survey March 28th. So we had about 10 days. Yeah, we’re very fast, but we really thought a lot about it. We spent I mean, we worked all day, all night, all the time. I mean, there was nothing else to do anyway. So I mean, we were just sort of like working, working for…I mean, I have three children, too. But we were really working. And my husband also got very involved in this. So it was kind of like a family effort and we invested a lot of time in designing the survey so the questions were really, would be the most helpful possible and sort of like complimentary to the other data sources that we had. And I think that was relatively successful. I mean, it’s definitely been very helpful to many different people. We built very quickly visualization tools of all the answers to the survey so anyone can access them, anyone can look at them. And that was very important so everyone can benefit from the answers.
Harry Glorikian: So in a pandemic, what can you–if you said, “Oh my God, this these were the, you know, two or three things that we were able to influence,” based on this technology integration or information that we were able to provide policymakers that made the biggest difference.
Nuria Oliver: Well, I think there are different levels. I think we had the impact at different levels, so the mobility analysis was extremely helpful for the government to really understand to which degree the lockdown and the measures had worked. And They really appreciated that piece of work a lot. The computational epidemiological models, which we haven’t talked about yet, but is basically we’ve been building models to predict the number of cases and the number of hospitalizations and the number of intensive care units and the number of deaths throughout the entire pandemic. And we’ve built different types of models because one of the take-home messages here is, of course, the underlying reality is extremely complex and it’s not a purely deterministic system. Evidently, the world is really, really hard to model. So if we build models that are completely different in their approach and they give us similar predictions, we can be more certain about those predictions than if the models each of them says something different. So we have three different models running all the time with completely different methods like to really see to which degree, you know, they are aligned. So our predictions have been used. I mean, I’ve been I’ve been writing reports for many, many months every day with the predictions of the day. So, so they could have a sense of how things were going, how fast the cases were going to be growing and things like that.
Nuria Oliver: So that was particularly helpful. I would say in the third wave, which took place after Christmas, and it was the worst wave here in the Valencia region. And it was very helpful because at the time we had just finished our third model, which was using deep neural networks and is a model that we use in the X Competition. And that model predicted extremely accurately the day of the peak of the number of cases and the number of cases at the peak. And it was very helpful because it was a very stressful moment where the cases were growing exponentially. There was a huge amount of tension as to whether to implement more measures or persist with these measures or change the measures or what to do. Because the number of cases were growing, the deaths were growing and they placed a fair amount of faith in our model, maybe more than I would have placed because I was just like, Oh my God, I hope this model works really, really well. But you know, there’s this moment where you are thinking, Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I mean, this is just a model, you know, the world is more complicated.
Harry Glorikian: Exactly.
Nuria Oliver: So that was that was very helpful. At the same time, we also build machine learning based, deep neural, network based prediction models of hospital occupancy and intensive care occupancy that was extremely helpful to allocate resources and to figure out which hospitals were going to be saturated and to to anticipate that and to determine whether they needed to mobilize more intensive care units and things like that.
Nuria Oliver: And then, as I mentioned, the survey has been helpful, I would say, all throughout the pandemic to really understand the needs of the people, to understand the sort of like the impact of the pandemic on people’s lives and and to determine what would be the areas of priority for new policies. So I think the different work streams have had different impacts, but I think that is a broader impact, which is probably the most important, maybe, which is the impact of showing a different way of working, a way of working that is a lot more data driven. That is more technological, that is very, very different to the traditional approach. And seeing that with with a clear example for a very long time and seeing the value that this way of working has brought, I think has been the best way for them to realize what they might be missing if they don’t undergo, you know, the necessary digital transformation.
Harry Glorikian: Can you have them come over here and talk to our guys? I think you need to have to come here and talk to our guys.
Nuria Oliver: I think you would need also internal advocates.
Harry Glorikian: I think that I think there’s a lot of those. I think there are there are a number of people internally right that that want to you just need to. I think people who sit in powerful positions need to understand the implications and the impact of this,
Nuria Oliver: And they have to accept they have to accept that the data might not tell something that they want to hear. I mean, there is also the risk of of losing control in a sense, right? Because the data could say that the policy didn’t work, you know, something that maybe you really believed in and you really push for it and then it’s like, OK, sorry, but this is not working right and you have to be.
Harry Glorikian: But that’s, you know, that’s part of the that’s part of the whole, you know, scientific method. You have a hypothesis, you go test it. And if it didn’t work to come up with a new hypothesis, right? I mean, that’s that’s the way it should be. And you know, in reality, I have this debate with people.
Nuria Oliver: The political world is not exactly like that.
Harry Glorikian: But I think this sort of decision making is not just from a policy perspective, but it permeates, all the way through. I mean, I have this debate with a lot of people in the medical world of, it doesn’t work. It’s making the wrong mistake. It’s biased. I’m like, it’s always evolving. This is software. It’s like every day it’s getting better. It doesn’t sleep, it can get better the next day. So a year from now, it can be an order of magnitude different than it was, you know, when it started. So. But
Harry Glorikian: Let’s pause the conversation for a minute to talk about one small but important thing you can do, to help keep the podcast going. And that’s to make it easier for other listeners discover the show by leaving a rating and a review on Apple Podcasts.
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And one more thing. If you like the interviews we do here on the show I know you’ll like my new book, The Future You: How Artificial Intelligence Can Help You Get Healthier, Stress Less, and Live Longer. It’s a friendly and accessible tour of all the ways today’s information technologies are helping us diagnose diseases faster, treat them more precisely, and create personalized diet and exercise programs to prevent them in the first place.
The book is now available in Kindle format. Just go to Amazon and search for The Future You by Harry Glorikian.
And now, back to the show.
Harry Glorikian: You mentioned the X Prize and you guys won the X Prize. And you split that prize with, you know, people in Slovenia. So did you have some programmers there or did you…
Nuria Oliver: No, no, no. There was a first prize and a second prize, and we won the first prize and they won the second prize.
Harry Glorikian: Oh okay, okay.
Nuria Oliver: So there were first, first, I guess first winner and then second the people there stayed second. Yeah, so.
Harry Glorikian: So how did that impact? How did that impact, you winning that, did that impact the way that people thought about the model?
Nuria Oliver: I think I think it gave us a lot of legitimacy and, you know, a huge external validation because we had been I felt we had been doing very, you know, rigorous solid work for many, many months. But of course, it was constrained to the Valencia region, maximum to Spain and then the X Prize Challenge asked us to build predictive models of the pandemic in 236 countries and regions in the world. So it was a step up, you know, from what we had to do. So I think I think it definitely gave a lot of like external validation to the work. I think I find it a very inspirational story. I never thought we were going to win. I was a little bit the devil’s advocate in the team. When I share with the team this idea, this opportunity of the of participating in the X Prize competition, but it was more like a teaser. I didn’t think that they were going to actually decide to go for it. And I and I told them many times, Look, guys, guys and girls. I mean, this is, you know, this is a different level. I mean, this is a global competition. You know, if we go for it, we are going to have to work even harder than we have been working all over Christmas and New Year’s and everything because the competition started at the end of November. I think it was a very beginning of December. And, you know, and I think we should try our best. I mean, if we go for it, we go 100 percent you. We just don’t sort of go, Yes, this is, let’s do it. Let’s do it.
Nuria Oliver: So we kind of jumped into the pool like the X Prize and. Uh, and it was incredible when we won, I couldn’t believe it. It was to me, it really shows that there is talent anywhere and everywhere. And many times what fails is not even the talent, it’s actually the environment where this talent is.
Harry Glorikian: Correct.
Nuria Oliver: If it is not an environment that supports the talent and that encourages the talent and that empowers the talent, that talent is like a little seed, right? And we don’t have an environment that enables this seed to grow, it just stays on the ground there, you know, not growing. And I think the entire initiative and particularly the X Prize competition, was this sort of environment where, you know, anyone could win. Everyone was in equal conditions and in our team, our team is extremely sort of like a very flat structure. There are students and there are full professors and everyone contributes equally and anyone can do anything you know is very sort of a hands on, you know, very sort of like a start up. And I think that was a big change from the traditional, well-established, somewhat bureaucratic research processes that prevailed in many institutions, right? Where there is a hierarchy from the full professor to the student. And, you know, many times the students feel that they cannot even do some idea that they might have because they have to be asking for permission, you know. So I think for me, it was also this inspirational story on saying, Well, you know, anyone could win any of these competitions, you know, if the environment,
Harry Glorikian: Environment and you know, geography, I always joke. I always say, like, if you’re in the West Coast or you can fail multiple times, you come to the East Coast, you’ve got to fail a lot less and it depends on which college or university you graduated from. You go to Europe, you fail a lot less because your family and everybody around you will not be happy, right? It’s depending on where you are, right? You’re willing to take more or less risk. And then, of course, that can be superimposed on the organization that’s also creating that environment. But let me jump now and say, you know and ask. You guys in Valencia have like a 90 percent vaccination rate, which I think is one of the highest in the world, much higher than the U.S. by far. I’m comparing a region to a country, but. What what do you think accounts for this? The differing levels of a compliance. Do you think the people in Spain are just more trusting of the medical establishment? I mean, you guys have Facebook too, so the same misinformation is getting to you. That’s getting to us. Are they more trusting of technology?
Nuria Oliver: I think there are multiple factors. I think one very important factor is that fortunately, the pandemic wasn’t really overly politicized and anyone from any political inclination or party or view, you know, was adopting measures, was wearing masks, you know, was willing to get vaccinated. So there was there hasn’t been this coupling that has happened in many countries between the pandemic and your political views. I think this has been completely orthogonal issues in Spain. You know, the pandemic impacts everyone. The pandemic doesn’t care if you are right wing, left wing or center. Yes, the virus is going to infect you the same. It doesn’t matter what you believe, you’re going to get it. Maybe you don’t believe in me but I’m going to infect you. So I that has that has definitely helped a lot. The other issue is Spain didn’t have a strong anti-vax movement to start from. There is definitely a lot of trust in the medical system. Spain has universal healthcare for free, so you get the best medical care in the world, pretty much for free, you know, cancer treatment, the best cancer treatment. Everything is for free in Spain, and there is a big trust in the system that is a big trust in the doctors and and and people really love the Spanish medical system because they see that it saves a lot of lives, you know? They see that it helps them and is free.
Nuria Oliver: So there isn’t really clear economic incentives associated to health care because it’s a right that people have. So I think that was another element the element of trust, the element of really trusting the system of the system being free and people realizing that, you know, health care is fundamental for a healthy society and everyone sort of like compliant. So we have the lack of politicization, the fact that we didn’t have a strong, anti-vax movement initially, the fact that the health care system, you know, is very trust is trusted a lot and it’s for free and people really appreciate it. And then we also have the fact that Spain is a very has a very strong group, whole sort of like group culture where conformism to the group is very important in Spain, as opposed to other cultures where they might emphasize more the individual and individualism. Spain is more of a kind of collective culture in that sense. So as soon as there was a minimum critical mass of people vaccinated, it just became an act of pride to be vaccinated and belonging to the group, you know, and sort of like complying with the group and. And I think that was also a factor.
Nuria Oliver: So combining all of this, yeah, we are one of the countries with the highest vaccination rates in the world and we don’t really have anti-vax movements like other countries have had or have still. And I think people, you know, you have to also remember that Spain was one of the worst impacted countries in the first wave. So the virus is very real to everyone. I would say everyone knows someone that has had COVID or has died from COVID. So I think as opposed to in other countries or regions in the world where the virus may seen something almost like theoretical because it hasn’t been next to you, you don’t know people infected. You might think, Oh, I don’t know, I don’t know anyone. So maybe this could not be real, right? Spain has been very, very real because the first wave was horrible here. And, you know, Spain and Italy were like the most impacted country for a long time. So I think that also has made the pandemic extremely real in Spain since the very, very beginning. And seeing the suffering, seeing people dying, seeing your relatives being in intensive care, you know, has really made people think, Oh, it’s not, it’s a no-brainer for me to get vaccinated. I don’t want to go through this.
Nuria Oliver: I don’t want anyone from my family to go through this, don’t want to infect other people. So I think there is also this element of of having really endured a very, very hard first wave of of of really, really shocked the society and people collectively feeling, OK, we need to defeat this virus together. We need to do anything we can to minimize the impact that is having in our society. So I think there are different reasons, you know, like anything. It isn’t a simple answer, right, but there is a confluence of factors…
Harry Glorikian: I wish.
Nuria Oliver: …that I think have played in our favor in terms of of the pandemic. I mean, the levels of vaccination are extremely high, but also the life is going back to pretty much normal now. I mean, we there is a lot of activity. I mean traveling, a lot of traveling. We had a lot of tourists this year this summer. Spain kept the schools open the entire school year last year. I think that was extremely smart to do. So that was also very positive in terms of not disrupting the lives of the children and the teenagers, which are some of the most affected demographic groups. So, so yeah, so I’m proud that that actually the response has been like this in Spain.
Harry Glorikian: So going back to the technological part, do you do you think that phones will be more useful tools for epidemiology or personal health in the next pandemic? And what have we learned that will help us be smarter about how we use [technology]?
Nuria Oliver: Yeah, so I think. So I think so there’s a difference between phones and the mobile network. Ok, so what we analyzed was data from the mobile network, not from the phones themselves. This is important to clarify because the mobile network is the data captured at the antennas. Correct. That that are all over the geographic space that are the ones providing the cellular connection. So I think that that has proven in many, many cases for many, many years, very valuable, both in developing economies and in developed economies. Then the phone itself, I think the impact this pandemic has been. I would say varied. So the detailed contact tracing, I don’t think it has been successful, at least the data that we have from the survey is that in Spain, it didn’t really work at all. We didn’t advocate for it because based on our research and we didn’t think that that was the most important thing to do at the time. We knew since the beginning of the pandemic that roughly 50 percent of the people 59 years old or younger could not self-isolate if they had to. So in what is called TTI Control Strategy, which is trace to know whom to test, to know whom to isolate, if people cannot isolate, there is no point in tracing them and testing them because they’re going to be infecting everyone else if they can’t isolate? So I think, you know, investing in infrastructure to help people self-isolate and providing support to people so they can self isolate.
Nuria Oliver: And it’s not a huge burden to them was also very important to enable, you know, everyone to do a proper quarantine. I think there has been quite it’s been quite successful actually the part of using the phones for entering symptoms. Many, many people answered our survey on their phones. I would say everyone, pretty much everyone answered a survey on the phones having some sort of like some digital, you know, certificates for vaccinations and things like that. I think that’s probably more helpful. They have projects and using the sensors on the phone to diagnose COVID 19 from the… patterns or the coughing patterns. So I think the phone can also be used as a tool for sort of like a screening tool, maybe more than a diagnostic tool. And of course, it can be used for telemedicine as well, particularly in situations where you are. You can leave your house, you know, or you can’t really go so. So for quite a few months, actually, the provision of care for non emergencies, non serious issues has been over the phone actually, and in many cases, is the mobile phone. So I think…
Harry Glorikian: Which brings me, I have another question for you, though, because based on that is. Separate from the pandemic, because hopefully it’s waning and we can get on with our lives. Do you have any ideas you want to pursue in the area of personal health and health care delivery?
Nuria Oliver: Yeah, well, there’s one idea that I’ve been trying to do for seven years, but I haven’t been able to get around to it yet, which is a project that I call Mobi-well and it’s a project that is really the hope is to really shed quantitative light on the interplay between the dependency that we developed towards our phones and our well-being. So I’m very interested in really understanding what are the implications of the fact that we can’t live without our phones and our own well-being. I think the phone is an incredibly powerful tool to support our well-being and to help us in many ways, you know, for chronic disease management, for, you know, as I mentioned, the pressures that I mentioned in terms of helping us change behaviors that we want to change, you know, to exercise more or to sleep more or to drink more water or whatever we want to do. The phone is a great ally. It can be a great ally for as a screening tool for different diseases, as an early detection tool. Also for certain diseases. But we cannot obviate that we are addicted to our phones and that we have a dependency towards our phones. So I am also interested in understanding what are the health implications on the wellness implications of such an addiction and such a dependency, particularly in the younger demographic groups. So that’s one project that I’m very interested in. I’m also. We are also working a lot in and the ELLIS Alicante Foundation that I just created on the ethical implications of AI.
Harry Glorikian: Yes.
Nuria Oliver: Implications such as the computational violation of privacy or the lack of veracity or the opacity or the manipulated subliminal manipulation or behavior discrimination, algorithmic discrimination. So a lot of these challenges, you know, we can test them on the phone and we can also explore and develop innovative algorithms that would have guarantees for non-discrimination. Or, you know, that would be privacy preserving. And we can do studies on the phone to see if that is the case. So I think it’s also a great tool for human behavioral studies and for what it’s called computational social sciences.
Harry Glorikian: I mean, if we could just get Facebook to open its data to you?
Nuria Oliver: Oh, yeah, I would love that.
Harry Glorikian: Yeah, I’m sure that we could see a lot.
Nuria Oliver: Yes, definitely. Absolutely. I mean, you see what’s happened with the latest, you know, revelations about some of the Facebook research. So so yeah. But I do think more research is needed to really understand this very complex interplay between ourselves, our wellbeing, both mental wellbeing and physical wellbeing and on the technology that we use. And it’s an area that I’m very interested in.
Harry Glorikian: My new book is all about that direction, which is how can you utilize technology to live a healthier life. Or is one of the gentleman that I interviewed once said a better health span, not just a life span.
Nuria Oliver: Yeah, yeah, exactly. Yeah. So I mean, I’ve devoted my life to inventing and exploring and developing technology to somehow improve the quality of life of people in some way. But I think it’s also time to really understand in a rigorous way, you know, what is the impact that that technology is having on our lives, not technology that is explicitly designed to support our well-being, but the the technology that we use on a daily, you know, on a daily basis, you know, the the services and the applications that we use every day for any purpose, you know, not specifically for health care purposes.
Harry Glorikian: Yeah, I think you were chosen, you were on the TR100 list, if I remember correctly.
Nuria Oliver: Yeah.
Harry Glorikian: And so you always wonder, like how well did the TR100 ed predict correctly? And it seems that they at least in your case, they got it. They got it right on the impact that you would have on the world.
Nuria Oliver: Oh, thank you. Yeah, that was really. I have a very nice memory. You know, I got my PhD from M.I.T. So getting this recognition for the MIT Technology Review was really, really nice. And I think it was I was the first Spanish person to get it. So that was also really nice in terms of Spain, because I think, you know, it might have helped other scientists from Spain to, I don’t know, be considered or for this award. So, yeah, so I have very nice memories, very fond memories of the event. They are
Harry Glorikian: So well. I can’t thank you enough for staying up later, or, you know, it’s actually late afternoon your time and participating today and sort of giving people who are listening an insight of how technology can make such a profound impact on managing pandemic and keeping people safe and communicating the right information to them. It’s huge. And so I hope that people hearing this can take the lessons from our discussion, and you never know people may end up reaching out to you because of it. So I hope that all this, you know, moves in a positive direction. So thank you so much for being on the show today.
Nuria Oliver: It was my pleasure. Thank you so much for the interest. And yeah, it’s been a really lovely conversation, so I thank you also. Also Linkedin for establishing the connection between us. Thank you.
Harry Glorikian: Excellent.
Nuria Oliver: Thank you. Ciao.
Harry Glorikian: Ciao.
Harry Glorikian: That’s it for this week’s episode.
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