The Victorian government has brought in tech giants IBM and Salesforce to digitise its contact tracing efforts, which is currently still using pen and paper methods.
San Francisco-based Salesforce is currently implementing a cloud-based data management platform in the Victorian Health Department which will include automated text messages, while New York tech giant IBM has sold an artificial intelligence tool to analyse contact tracing interviews to the Victorian government for $4 million.
It comes amidst criticism of Victoria’s approach to contact tracing, most notably from Prime Minister Scott Morrison and a range of government ministers.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews on Tuesday announced the new Salesforce case and contact management system, a CRM platform that will run in parallel to the existing tracing system within the Department of Health.
This new platform would “consolidate and align” the different platforms currently used by the department, Mr Andrews said, and send out automated text messages to alert health officials, infected individuals and close contacts about a positive COVID-19 test.
“That means there’s less pens and appears, less manual data entry and it facilitates the notion of devolving some of our response – everyone can input into the same platform and everyone can have line of sight of the same data and information at the same time,” Mr Andrews told the media on Tuesday morning.
“It’s everything from case interviews, testing results and notes from outbreaks. It’s everything that sits in a number of different systems being put into one platform, and allowing people from every place to be able to have line of sight of that, which I think is a very, very important thing.”
The Salesforce platform will initially run alongside the existing systems used by the Victorian government, before eventually replacing them entirely.
Salesforce has provided similar platforms to the Western Australian and South Australian state governments, as well as to the New Zealand government and more than 30 jurisdictions in the United States.
“Salesforce is working with the Victorian government to deliver new processes and technology to support the work of its manual contact tracing team. This technology is being used by governments across Australia and the world to help deliver streamlined and effective contact tracing,” a Salesforce spokesperson said.
Salesforce had earlier offered this system to the Victorian government in March but was rejected.
Mr Andrews on Tuesday defended this decision.
“Sometimes when you are swamped that’s not a good time to move to a new IT platform. I think common sense tells you that,” he said.
Victorian Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton also defended this decision.
“The system that we had, we didn’t know what would be required, we didn’t know we’d get to 700 cases a day, and we didn’t know what the particular weaknesses in terms of our particular database would be,” Professor Sutton told 3AW.
“It was pretty clear that March was our busiest time during the first wave and you don’t change the entire system and retrain everyone right in the middle of it.”
It’s also understood that Salesforce pitched a national contact tracing management system based on its CRM to the federal government in March but this was also rejected.
A federal Department of Health spokesperson said the government has received a “number of offers” for cloud-based knowledge management systems in the wake of COVID-19, and declined to comment on this specific offer, but said a national contact system is not feasible currently.
“States and territories are at different stages in their COVID-19 outbreaks and responses and the contact tracing solutions that all jurisdictions have vary between them. There is no one size fits all approach to contact tracing that can be rolled out nationally at this stage,” the spokesperson told InnovationAus.
“The most important resource in contact tracing continues to be well trained staff with clinical knowledge, supported by effective and transparent jurisdictional data systems.”
IBM has also been brought into Victoria’s contact tracing system, with the US tech giant providing a “health tracing platform” that uses artificial intelligence to analyse confirmed COVID-19 cases and close contacts interviews for trends.
The Victorian government awarded IBM the $4.2 million contract for enhanced health tracing at the end of August, with the use of the technology to “significantly reduce the time spent on each case, identifying connections between different COVID cases”.
The IBM product will be used to analyse the long-form interviews conducted by the health department with confirmed COVID-19 cases, detailing where they’ve been, their circumstances, potential close contacts and how long they have been symptomatic for.
“Those documents are read, but to go through them again and again and try to find connections that may not necessarily be obvious is just the best use of technology,” Mr Andrews said.
The IBM platform was built for use by Defence, Mr Andrews said, but it has been repurposed to assist with contact tracing.
“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,” he 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.”
A number of tech companies have played a prominent role in Australia’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, primarily through the development of COVIDSafe, the federal government’s contact tracing app.
US tech giant Amazon’s cloud hosting platform was utilised for the app, while Australian tech darling Atlassian played an early role in its development.