‘Misguided’: Vic govt ditches COVID platform

Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

The Victorian government made a “misguided and costly mistake” in buying a $4 million IBM platform as part of its effort to combat the COVID-19 second wave, appearing to believe it included artificial intelligence capabilities when it had a “known lack of AI capacity”, a parliamentary committee has found.

The Legal and Social Issues Committee, chaired by Reason Party leader Fiona Patten, tabled its report on the state government’s contact tracing capabilities on Monday, with the use of big tech solutions in the spotlight.

It found that a decision by the Victorian government to buy IBM’s i2 analyst platform was a costly mistake, with the platform scrapped within days after it was discovered that it did not have the artificial intelligence and predictive capabilities required.

Melbourne city aerial day
Contact tracing: Victorian government drops platform after just four days

In July, the Victorian government approached US tech giant IBM to see whether its existing i2 analyst platform could help with analysing COVID-19 data to assist with contact tracing. At the end of August, IBM was awarded a $4.197 million contract by the Department of Health and Human Services for “enhanced health tracing”.

The Victorian government purchased the i2 platform to conduct “predictive modelling” of the data, delivering “deeper and quicker analysis” to identify “links between cases, emerging trends and speeding insights”.

At the time, it was widely understood that this platform would use artificial intelligence to analyse this data, with Premier Daniel Andrews spruiking this at a press conference in August.

“It’s using technology that’s really for other purposes – the notion of using machine learning, artificial intelligence, predictive stuff that’s not built for a pandemic but is really valuable in these circumstances,” Mr Andrews said.

“It lets you see patterns that may not be obvious or that would take thousands of thousands of hours of staff going through things, or things you may not have been able to find.”

But IBM Australia general manager of global technology services Charles Agee told the inquiry that the i2 platform “is not an AI tool”.

Victorian health officials soon discovered this, and two days after the platform was launched in early October, the state government went back to IBM and asked for predictive analysis and automated alerts to be incorporated.

“During the week beginning Monday 12 October it became clear to IBM that the DHHS data analysis team required a system capable of alerting them to significant events or conditions that should be followed up by an analyst, in contrast to an analyst using the system to discover these conditions or events,” Mr Agee told the inquiry.

Mr Agee told the inquiry that despite IBM putting forward some solutions to this issue, the state government eventually told it to stop this work.

“On 14 October, the DHHS project manager requested IBM stop work on the i2 platform deployment. DHHS subsequently indicated their intention not to proceed to the next stage using the i2 platform’s capabilities as its requirements had evolved,” he said.

The committee found that this i2 platform, which the state government bought for more than $4 million, is no longer in use. Mr Agee told the inquiry that this is “not uncommon in technology projects”.

The committee found that the decision to buy this platform was a “misguided and costly mistake given the platform’s known lack of AI capacity”.

The committee’s report also investigates the Victorian government’s rejection of an offer from Salesforce in March to use its customer relationship management platform to assist with contact tracing efforts.

The Salesforce platform automatically begins the process of contact tracing, using risk-prioritisation, with automated SMS technology and two-way messages.

The state government eventually did opt to use Salesforce’s technology in late August, five months after it was first offered.

The committee was highly critical of the Victorian government’s initial reluctance to adopt the Salesforce platform.

“The committee notes that however capable the current contact tracing solution is, it was not available when the Victorian public needed it. This failure cost lives and was unable to be rectified without strict lockdown measures throughout the state,” the report said.

“The committee views the reluctance by the Victorian government to concede or acknowledge errors as a contributing factor in the substantial delays in the implementation of a suitable contact tracing management system.

“Furthermore, the committee notes that this lack of humility has the capacity to hinder progress by limiting opportunities for collaboration or building off developments made in other jurisdictions.”

The Victorian government defended its decision to not use the Salesforce technology earlier in the year to the inquiry, saying that it would not have been possible to implement it at the time.

“The department received many offers of assistance from technology vendors. Each was assessed in terms of their relevance and utility in the pandemic response,” the state government said.

“Assessment of the Salesforce CRM system, including input from discussions with our WA and SA colleagues, indicated that implementation in the department would be a major project requiring significant resourcing and input from the testing and contact tracing teams.

“A major IT project was impractical because the teams were very stretched by the need to scale-up testing and contact tracing operations to respond to the rapidly growing number of cases.”

But a Salesforce representative told the inquiry that the initial implementation could have been completed within eight weeks, and that its CRM platform was not meant to replace the existing Public Health Event Surveillance System (PHESS), but to run parallel to it.

The Salesforce contact tracing platform is now in use by the Victorian government.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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