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  • Tue, 31 Mar 2020 21:16:55 +0000

    Working From Home? Here Are 8 Ways to Boost Your Internet Speed

    As more people work from home to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, they’re using their home internet networks for activities usually reserved for the workplace. But your home network may not be equipped to handle all the video conferencing and file-uploading you may be doing at the moment.

    What can you do if your home Internet connection isn’t up to the job? Here are eight ways to get an internet speed boost while you’re working from home.

    Consider time-shifting video chats

    Getting the best possible Internet speed is all about finding the balance between what data you’re moving online and when you need to move it. Gotta start your meeting at 9 o’clock sharp, huh? That may not be the best idea — if lots of people in your area are doing high-bandwidth activities at the same time, it could slow things down for everyone.

    The solution? Just wait a few minutes. Time shift your call five to 10 minutes ahead or behind to avoid any connection issues and put less strain on the calling and videoconferencing services you’re using. Even a 10-minute delay in a call can improve quality and decrease the likelihood of disconnections.

    Schedule big downloads and updates for the evening

    Similar to time shifting calls a few minutes, scheduling huge downloads and updates during times when internet use is lower can help things move faster. You can schedule updates for your PC or Mac to occur in the middle of the night, when internet use is down and congestion is low.

    On Windows, you can pause downloads for a week, or schedule them to resume on a day of your choosing (like the weekend). You can also adjust the automatic installation of updates to accommodate the hours you set manually. Visit the Start menu, select Settings, Update & Security, Windows Update, and select “Change active hours.” From the same Windows Update menu, you can select “Pause update for 7 days” to put a stop to any downloads until you’re done working for the day or week.

    While you can’t schedule updates to happen at night on your Mac, you can disable its automatic update feature and update yourself manually whenever the mood strikes you. Hit the Apple logo in the top left, then select About this Mac. Select Software Update, Advanced, and uncheck the “Download new updates when available” option.

    Turn off your idle devices

    While you might be the only one working from home, you aren’t using the only device that’s accessing the web. While you might not think your smartphone is doing a lot of downloading in your pocket or your PlayStation is doing much in rest mode, idle devices can still pull down software updates, eating up precious bandwidth. Shut down, unplug or disconnect your extra devices while they’re not in use if speed is your priority.

    Understand your router’s strengths

    While every router is different, yours might have a few extra tricks up its sleeve. Many routers allow you to customize how traffic is divided among devices, letting you prioritize a particular device, putting your computer or smartphone first in line when it comes to sending and receiving data. It’s a great feature perfect for that conference call that’s more important than your kid’s Netflix binge in the next room over.

    Moreover, if you’ve got a dual-band router (one that supports both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies), consider moving your computer to the 5GHz band, which typically offers faster speeds at the cost of decreased range. If you’re a room over, you should be fine, but the farther you move away the more degraded your connection will be.

    Don’t hide your router

    Look, it’s not your fault your router isn’t much of a looker. Hiding it behind some knick knacks or putting it under a table might be one way to disguise it while staying online, but all that obfuscation is not doing you any favors in terms of connectivity. Doors, walls, and everything else in your router’s way will degrade the range and connection strength, especially if you’re working in another room.

    To alleviate the issue, consider showing off your wireless router, placing it somewhere prominent — or at least somewhere unobstructed. After all, it’s not like anyone’s coming over to criticize your interior design these days.

    Or just get a new one

    But chances are you haven’t upgraded your router lately, or you’re using your modem’s built-in wireless router capabilities to stay online. If you’ve got multiple people at home, all vying for the same internet connection, you might want to upgrade your router to one more capable of handling all that traffic from multiple devices.

    If you already work near your wireless router, you could be fine upgrading to one that supports MU-MIMO, a standard that lets multiple devices transmit and receive data simultaneously instead of waiting their turn (if both your router and the device you’re using supports MIMO.) You could also invest in a mesh router network to fix any internet dead spots. Using a mesh network also means less stress on mesh router, as devices will connect to the closest router.

    Whatever you do, it’s generally a good idea to avoid using the router that your Internet provider supplied. They’re generally slower than routers you can buy for yourself, and buying your own router can save you money on equipment rental fees in the long run.

    Wired connections are always better

    If you’ve got the option to forego the wireless web completely, consider breaking out the Ethernet cable and making a direct connection between your device and your router. Wireless internet is certainly convenient, but one drawback is its latency — the time it takes for signals to go back and forth between router and device — especially compared to a wired connection.

    That matters even more when doing activities in real time, like playing competitive games or video conferencing with colleagues. That latency leads to lost information, which leads to lag, degraded quality, or missed headshots (hopefully not during your conference call.)

    Upgrade time

    If the above tips don’t help enough, you can consider paying extra for a faster Internet connection, either from your current provider or by switching to a new one, if available. Keep in mind, though, that your actual Internet speeds might fall short of the advertised numbers, for a variety of reasons. And, if applicable, check with your employer to see if they’re offering any kind of reimbursement for your Internet bill while you’re working from home.

  • Tue, 31 Mar 2020 16:23:59 +0000

    ‘Something Needs to Fill That Void.’ As Stadiums Go Quiet, Esports Are Having a Moment

    Unless you’re into marble racing or Belarusian hockey, you’re probably having a hard time finding any sports to watch right now. The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown the NBA and NHL seasons into limbo, MLB’s opening day came and went with nary a knuckleball or bat flip, and the Olympics are being put off until 2021.

    But one form of sporting event lives on in the age of social distancing: Esports, or competitive video gaming, is on the rise, with people tuning in to everything from Counter-Strike to League of Legends. Viewership on Twitch, the go-to site for game streamers, is up 31% in March, by one estimate. People stuck inside are playing more video games, no doubt. But they’re also watching the world’s best gamers take one another on, too.

    “Sports are out and something needs to fill that void,” says Chance “Maux” Moncivaez, who plays Call of Duty: Modern Warfare player on the Florida Mutineers, an esports team. “I think esports is perfect to fill that void because of the ability to play online competitions.”

    It’s not that the coronavirus outbreak has totally spared the esports world. The biggest, most well-funded competitions, like Activision-Blizzard’s Overwatch League, are held in-person in massive arenas like Madison Square Garden, often before sellout crowds. With big gatherings off the table, those events have been canceled, disrupting a business that counts in part on ticket and merch sales. But unlike basketball or hockey, it’s possible to shift esports back online, where they began — it just takes a little doing.

    “It is possible to train, and compete, and continue competition and create entertainment,” says Steve Arhancet, owner of Team Liquid, an esports organization that represents 70 players across 17 different games. “It’s all possible. But it’s not like the flip of a switch.”

    One issue, says Arhancet, is making sure that players don’t cheat when they’re not under the watchful eye of a referee. “Aimbots,” or software that automatically aims at enemy players in shooter games, are one popular trick — think of them as the esports’ world sign-stealing controversy. Then there’s the simple issue of making sure every player has a good enough Internet connection to compete on equal footing; the tiniest bit of lag can result in a missed shot or miscast spell.

    “We can get there,” says Arhancet. “We can do these things. We will be more resilient than a lot of professional sports industries. But how long will it take? Each game will handle that a little bit differently.”

    Indeed, some leagues are finding their footing more quickly than others. While the Overwatch League has started back up, the competitive scene for Apex Legends has faltered. Riot Games — which developed, published, and organizes tournaments for esports giant League of Legends — took its League of Legends Championship Series [LCS] online-only in under a week.

    “This is a time where our fans need something to watch, need something to entertain them, need something to distract them from the things that are going on around them, even if it’s just for a short time,” says LCS Commissioner Christopher Greeley. “With the complete absence of conventional sports, and only a handful of esports able to deliver remotely, it was important for us to deliver for the fans.”

    Being able to operate amid a total absence of “conventional” sports would seem like a brilliant marketing opportunity for the esports world, which is closer than ever to going truly mainstream. But people in the business say that for now, they’re more focused on keeping their existing audience engaged rather than trying to pull in new fans.

    “I think the opportunity certainly exists, but it’s not the opportunity we’re focused on,” says Greeley. “If the ancillary effect of that is people who normally would be watching the NCAA tournament are flipping on Twitch and finding the LCS and sticking around, that’s great. But it’s certainly not what we’re driving towards.”

    Still, as some desperate hoops fans turn to simulated matchups in basketball video games like NBA 2K, it doesn’t seem like a huge leap to convert them into lifelong esports viewers. But some are skeptical that those fans would stick around when traditional sports finally tip-off once again.

    “The reality is that I don’t think there would be a turnover in the long term,” says Carlos Rodríguez Santiago, owner of European esports organization G2. “Our best bet is to keep doing what we’re doing … and embrace everybody that comes in and wants to learn about games.”

    Newbies are tuning in regardless. Arhancet says Team Liquid’s viewership is up 30% higher than “any month we’ve had in company history,” while Santaigo says viewership numbers for G2 are up around 20 percent. Twitch itself went from 33 million to 43 million viewers between March 8 and March 22.

    But the players and organizers who spoke with TIME for this story seemed aware of why the numbers are up, and many simply want the virus to go away.

    “I think time will tell how resilient the esports industry will be,” says Arhancet. “Honestly, I’m really hopeful that in four weeks, there’s been enough social distancing and preventive measures to curb this, and we’re back to normal before we know it.”

  • Mon, 30 Mar 2020 01:54:15 +0000

    Instacart Workers Plan Strike as Coronavirus Makes the Job Riskier

    (NEW YORK) — A possible strike by Instacart workers highlights the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on the grocery delivery business, where workers are worried about their safety as they try to meet a surge in demand for online groceries.

    A group called the Gig Workers Collective is calling for a nationwide walk-out Monday. They’ve been asking Instacart to provide workers with hazard pay and protective gear, among other demands. Instacart said Sunday it would soon provide workers with a new hand sanitizer upon request and outlined changes to its tip system. The group said the measures were too little too late.

    While some workers say they intend to join the strike for at least a day — or have stopped filling orders already for fear of getting the virus — other, newer workers are content to have a paying job at a time of mass layoffs in other industries.

    The San Francisco-based delivery app is trying to hire 300,000 more workers — more than doubling its workforce —to fulfill orders it says have surged by 150% year-over year in the past weeks. The company said 50,000 new shoppers joined its platform in just the past week. Some customers are waiting days to receive orders.

    Instacart currently has a workforce of more than 200,000 contracted workers who make multiple trips a day to various grocery stores to fulfill and deliver orders that customers make through the app. It also directly employs about 20,000 part-time workers who are assigned to a single store, collecting groceries that are subsequently delivered to clients by a contracted Instacart worker.

    Chloe Grozdina, a part-time Instacart in-store shopper assigned to a Mariano’s grocery store in the Chicago area, says workers are seeing “a lot of apocalypse orders” from customers hunkered down in their homes. Panic shopping has cleared out the shelves, meaning she often has to replace a customer’s orders with a lesser item or notify them that it’s not available.

    Grozdina, who makes $13 an hour and doesn’t get tips, said the crowds of fellow Instacart shoppers have made it tough to keep a safe distance while racing to fulfill orders. Grozdina said she wears a mask to work that she bought herself and immediately showers when she gets home.

    Among their demands, the strike organizers want hazard pay of $5 an order and supplies of hand sanitizer, wipes and cleaning supplies free of charge. On Sunday, the company said it had contracted with a third-party manufacturer to make a hand sanitizer spray that workers can request at no cost via a website starting Monday, with shipments starting in a few days.

    Data show online grocery orders jumping even before some cities and states imposed “stay at home” orders. During the week of March 2, Instacart, Amazon, and Walmart grocery delivery services each saw at least a 65 percent sales increase compared to the same time last year, according to estimates from Earnest Research.

    Instacart has started offering bonuses of between $25 and $200 for its hourly employees dependent on hours worked until April 15.

    Instacart also announced a month-long extension of a temporary policy giving 14 days of paid leave to workers who are diagnosed with coronavirus, or have been ordered to isolate themselves. The strike organizers that policy extended to workers with a doctor’s note verifying a pre-existing condition that could make them more vulnerable to the virus.

    They also demanded that Intacart raise the tip default in its app to 10% from the current 5%. Instead, Instacart announced Sunday it would change the default to the amount the customer last tipped, saying tips have increased considerably during the virus crisis.

    Instacart said previously that it has added more “promotions” — or extra pay for contracted full-service shoppers to accept certain orders.

    That was not enough to lure back Shanna Foster, a single mother who stopped working her Instacart gig two weeks ago out of fear of contracting the virus.

    “They need to give us hazard pay right now and it should be guaranteed,” said Foster, of Simi Valley, California.

    Other companies such as Amazon and Walmart have also announced hiring sprees to meet a surge for both deliveries and in-store essentials. Amazon has increased pay for its workers, including those at its Whole Foods Grocery stores.

    While such low-wage jobs put people on the front lines of the pandemic, many people are applying as layoffs surge in retail, restaurant, hospitality and other industries.

    Summer Cooper, 39, started working as an Instacart shopper in the Tampa Bay area recently after losing her position as a server at a hotel restaurant. She was unaware of the possible strike.

    “I’m grateful to have some way to make money,” Cooper said.

    Darrin Burdette, an Instacart shopper in Colorado Springs, said joining a strike would “not help me in any way.”

    An Uber driver, Burdette said he relies entirely on his Instacart gig since demand for ride-hailing services plunged. He said he is earning about $30 an hour as Instacart orders rise. On his app, he can see that many orders have come from people using the service for the first time.

    Michelle Ellwood, 43, began using the app shortly after her family returned from a trip abroad and decided to self-isolate for two weeks. She said Instacart shoppers have gone out of their way to fulfill orders. One, she said, returned with a chicken after previously being unable to find meat at local stores.

    “It’s amazing that they are doing this. I’m grateful. I’m hopeful they are able to take care of their families through this,” said Ellwood of Canandaigua, New York.

    _______

    Anderson reported from St. Petersburg, Florida.

  • Fri, 27 Mar 2020 23:10:39 +0000

    Apple’s New Powerbeats Are OK, But Design Flaws Keep Them From Greatness

    While some people might decry the act of running while blaring tunes, claiming it distracts you from the objectively arduous task at hand (that is, flinging your body through space at speed for miles on end), I wholeheartedly disagree. Whether you’re jogging, lifting, skating, or just spending a lot more time indoors due to increasingly restrictive government mandates, you’re gonna want some headphones to keep the party going in your head. To that end, Apple-owned audio company Beats now has a new version of its workout-focused Powerbeats headphones, a sort of little brother to the truly wireless Powerbeats Pro. At $149, the Powerbeats won’t outshine the pricier Pro model, but it does make for a decent pair of headphones at a fair price if you can get over some potential dealbreakers.

    The new Powerbeats, which look more streamlined compared to the $199 Powerbeats released in 2016, are in-ear headphones with adjustable rubber hooks that loop around the back of the ear. Included are four different silicone ear tip sizes, along with a drawstring carrying pouch so you don’t lose them (but let’s be real, you’ll probably lose the pouch first). They’re connected via a short neckband cable, so there’s no worry about losing one. The adjustable hooks are a slick design update that makes the Powerbeats fit more snugly behind the ear — but it may not be a comfortable fit for all.

    That shortened, rounded cable makes snags almost disappear, and the controls built onto the earbuds themselves solve the problem of searching for any sort of control node attached to the aforementioned cable. It also helps those who don’t necessarily love the independent earbuds on headphones like the more expensive Powerbeats Pro, or on competing truly wireless workout headphones like the Plantronics BackBeat Fit 3200.

    The Powerbeats charge via the same lightning cable you can use on your iPhone (though for some reason its indicator light is on the other earbud). They’re good for an advertised 15 hours of use, and in my week of mild use I’ve only had to charge them twice.

    If you’re spending this much on headphones, you probably care about audio quality. Powerbeats delivers, sounding much better than most truly wireless options, including Apple’s AirPods. The bass is stronger and voices are clearer, though some might take issue with the sealed in-ear design for outdoors activities like running. Still, they sound great, and are as functional as the Powerbeats Pro, featuring capabilities like audio sharing when paired with an iPhone.

    But the Powerbeats’ design is compromised in some frustrating ways. Every ear is different, but the Powerbeats don’t do enough to accommodate that variety. For me, the Powerbeats’ “adjustable” rubber hooks weren’t adjustable enough, and 10 minutes into my runs my ears would start to ache as they pressed against the rubber I had tugged and twisted on, only to have it slowly morph back into its uncomfortable original position.

    The real letdown? The playback controls are in what might be the worst possible spot. The Powerbeats might be Beats products, but parent company Apple has long since solved this problem with the first AirPods and AirPods Pro, which let you tap (or squeeze) on the body to play, pause, or change tracks. Here, not so much. The Beats logo pulls double duty as a playback button, and forces you to essentially push the earbuds deeper into your canal, making for an unpleasant experience when you’re bouncing around, to say the least.

    Powerbeats, depending on what looks your ears are serving, is a mixed bag in terms of design, functionality, and price. While stylish, functional, and superb in audio quality, the aesthetic choices ultimately compromise the ergonomics in a way that could prove literally painful to some athletes or active listeners. If you’re still interested, maybe borrow a friend’s before you commit to dropping this amount of cash, especially since you’ll probably be inside for a while. Just make sure to sterilize them first.

  • Fri, 27 Mar 2020 15:31:51 +0000

    How American Elections Got So Vulnerable—and What We All Can Do Now

    America’s democracy is at risk from more than Russian Twitter trolls. Our voting systems, the information technology that undergirds our elections, are dangerously outdated and vulnerable to attack. And for Finnish data security expert Harri Hursti, the best defense we have might be counting paper ballots.

    We don’t have to count every vote by hand, he says — just enough to prove with a reasonable standard of certainty that the electronic results are valid. And for Hursti, who founded a string of companies before becoming involved in the area of election security, such a low-tech solution might be our best chance to protect the core mechanisms of our democracy.

    Hursti is the subject of the new HBO documentary Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections, directed by Simon Ardizzone, Russell Michaels and Sarah Teale. The film, which premiered March 26, follows Hursti as he exposes the vulnerabilities of America’s election systems. Watching the doc and learning the extent of those weaknesses won’t necessarily help you sleep at night, but for activists and ethical hackers, the first step in fixing a system is showing that it was broken to begin with. Hursti spoke with TIME in advance of the film’s release, taking a deep look at the realities of American election security, psychological warfare and the information landscape in the age of coronavirus. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

    HBOHursti in HBO’s Kill Chain

    TIME: Why are you concerned about the security of America’s election infrastructure?

    Hursti: America is a country that exports democracy to a number of other countries, both old democracies and new emerging democracies. And right now, when this exporting happens, it’s important that what is being sent out are the best practices that will make that democracy resilient. We are literally in a new cold war. All democracies are constantly under attack. Those attacks are carried out by multiple parties with a multitude of different methodologies and goals. So it is important to have systems that can sustain these attacks.

    What are some of our major vulnerabilities?

    We have two different broad buckets of vulnerabilities. The first vulnerability is the triple barrage of propaganda, misinformation and disinformation—basically attacking the minds of a society. Those three terms are very often used interchangeably, but they are actually very different tactics and practices in psychological warfare. The whole goal is to distort your frame of reality in order to make it impossible for you to get the facts, to believe any information provided to you, because they’ve destroyed the foundation and frame of reference in your mind. That is how you destroy a society. When a substantial number of people stop receiving facts, they stop believing in the society itself, and that’s where the collapse starts.

    The other angle is attacking the election systems themselves. Our systems were designed at a time when cyber warfare was just bad science fiction. There was no security consciousness. But security is something you cannot add as an afterthought. It has to be part of the basic design before the first line of programming is written. Even with the newer machines, there has been no clear movement to redesign the systems to be resilient.

    So why the return to paper ballots?

    All systems we have today and for the foreseeable future can be hacked, and American elections cannot be conducted without information technology. So you need to have a hand-marked paper ballot to record the voter’s intent in permanent media as a fallback, and then you have to use technology to process that data with the knowledge that you might not be able to trust the result. And then you have to have a process of risk-limiting audits to convince you and the others that the election was in fact free and fair.

    The goal of democracy is peaceful transition of power. The peaceful transition of power is only possible if the supporter of the losing parties can accept the results as free and fair. So we need to go back to paper ballots as evidence, with mandatory risk limiting audits to make sure the results of every race are verified.

    HBO

    Are there certain types of voting machines in the U.S. that particularly worry you?

    In localities where people are still using direct recording voting machines (touchscreen voting machines with no paper trail) there are dangers because the voters’ intent is only recorded in digital form. If there is a suspicion of a hack, there is nothing you can do to prove that nothing happened, or prove that something happened. And if someone did tamper with the votes, there is no recourse to get a trustworthy result. So anything that is not backed by evidence, that evidence being a hand-marked paper ballot, is a vulnerable system. These machines are incapable of producing a forensic trail. Doubt is a destructive force, so we need to get to a place where elections are evidence-based and you can always prove that the election result was accurate.

    Who’s to blame for how things got this way?

    There are two things. First, the 2000 election crisis happened and as a reaction the Help America Vote Act of 2002 was enacted. That allocated over $3 billion of funding for jurisdictions to “modernize.” The problem was that there were no security standards, and much of what was being sold was already outdated. That is why the massive deployment of substandard equipment started in the first place.

    The second part of the blame is with the voting technology vendors, who, in my opinion, live in the past. The vendors need to understand risks and vulnerabilities not as a PR problem, marketing problem or lobbying problem, but as a technological problem. There has been no security-conscious thinking. When a vulnerability is demonstrated in any system, the vulnerability itself doesn’t tell you how bad things are; the reaction of the company does. If the company responds proactively, then you know it’s a company with a responsible, pro-security culture. When you have companies where the first reaction is a PR campaign or legal action, to basically shoot the messenger, now you have a real security problem, because the company does not have security consciousness.

    HBO

    Has the COVID-19 pandemic affected America’s election security situation?

    If you think about a malicious actor whose goal is to sow distrust within society, this kind of crisis is a perfect way to undermine trust. False messaging around public health issues started before COVID-19, and now you have a massive ramping up of information warfare because of the outbreak. Both the tools and the platforms used to spread the messages will outlast the disease itself. So in the cyber world, we are seeing the beginning of a long-lasting trend.

    The E.U. has already picked up on Russian activities targeted to amplify the adverse effects of the COVID-19 crisis. We are seeing what happens when an official reaction and communication is delayed. Adverse actors can see the beginning of a new playbook—it’s a way to utilize a natural disaster to undermine adversaries. For the threat actors whose primary goal is to undermine people’s trust in society in western democracies, this is a start of a new kind of warfare.

    Is it too late for us to secure the 2020 elections in November?

    The short answer is yes. The longer answer is we should do everything we can possibly do. In counties where you have a paper ballot, we should make sure there is a chain of custody and governance over the paper trail, and enact strong risk-limiting audits. I don’t think those actions would cost much; they’re more a procedural and legislative change. That is, implementing paper ballots, and where you already have paper ballots, mandatory risk-limiting audits.

    Is there anything ordinary people can do?

    Yes. The most important thing is that apathy is as dangerous to democracy as someone manipulating the elections. If you are eligible to vote, please vote, and vote on the whole ballot. The races down the ballot are massively under-voted. From a criminal point of view, that’s where the money is. The more a race is under-voted, the easier it is to manipulate undetected.

    You can also be a poll worker. There is a desperate need for younger and technologically agile people to help to run elections, and also to look out for irregularities and report them. It’s a wonderful way to get involved in the community, and to learn about civics, to learn how the cornerstone of democracy actually works.

    And last but not least, if your jurisdiction is not using paper ballots and doesn’t have mandatory risk-limiting audits, contact your representative and ask them to get it done. Ask them for evidence-based elections, hand-marked paper ballots and mandatory risk-limiting audits, where every race is audited every single time.

  • Fri, 27 Mar 2020 13:59:04 +0000

    We’re Online More Than Ever Right Now. Can the Internet Itself Keep Up?

    As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across the world, forcing major cities and entire countries to enter a state of indefinite lockdown, many people are being encouraged or ordered to work or learn remotely, conducting meetings, conference calls and classes online in isolation. But is the Internet itself ready for the sudden surge in activity? And what about the millions of Americans who lack high-speed Internet access in the first place?

    First, the good news. Yes, there’s been a sharp uptick in traffic from homes around the country over the past few weeks — web use is up 35%, according to Andrew Dugan, CTO of networking company CenturyLink. But luckily, that spike in use doesn’t threaten to strain the core infrastructure of the web itself, as it can be augmented with extra capacity to handle the increased activity.

    “We have seen a few hotspots, but in the core of the network that’s pretty easy to deal with,” says Dugan. “Particularly for larger carriers like us that have a fiber-based network, we can add capacity to our internet backbone reasonably quickly.”

    That said, some places may have more challenges than others to keep the speeds up, Dugan says, especially in lower-population areas. The internet infrastructure outside major cities isn’t typically as robust or built to accommodate such a dramatic rise in traffic all at once. A particular issue are the local connections to people’s individual homes — a stretch referred to as “the last mile” — that are serviced by Internet Service Providers (ISPs), like Verizon and Comcast. It’s the last mile that could suffer the most during busy business hours or peak evening times, when everyone is home streaming video, playing games, or just messing around on the web.

    As of now, most ISPs are handling the uptick in traffic just fine, with many seeing an uptick in traditional communications like voice calls. Verizon’s latest network report shows a huge increase in voice calls — up to 800 million per day, double the call volume compared to its busiest call volume day, Mother’s Day — as a result of the pandemic forcing people to stay socially distanced from others. The use of collaboration services (like videoconferencing software or online learning services) has also risen by 47% compared to the week prior, with usage dropping off during the weekend. A Verizon spokesperson said this week that the company handled 218,009 terabytes of data, the equivalent of 106 million hours of streaming video.

    Still, with so many people online, home Internet speeds have slowed down just slightly due to the increased network congestion. That’s largely thanks to videoconferencing software, a kind of Internet usage that doesn’t mesh well with most residential internet services, according to Morgan Kurk, CTO of networking firm CommScope. He says that while home internet services offer plenty of download capacity — good for surfing the web or streaming movies — they tend to have slower upload speeds. That means sending data — like a video stream to your collages — takes a backseat. “It’s so much uplink traffic that didn’t exist before,” says Kurk.

    Some ISPs, like Xfinity and Verizon, have relaxed their data overage rules or increased data caps free of charge. That’s good news for your monthly bill, but might incentivize more use, leading to slower speeds due to network congestion — further explaining why your recent video conference calls might not look as great as the one you made a few months ago.

    Even if the Internet itself is mostly fine, some individual platforms may have demand-related issues. Earlier this week, Microsoft’s workplace collaboration tool, Teams, suffered an hours-long outage, leaving many in a lurch, unable to connect to colleagues. On Thursday, some Google services were down temporarily, according to Ookla’s DownDetector site, which reports on outages from a variety of services based on user response and social media trends. It’s unclear if either outage was directly related to extra coronavirus-related use, but it’s safe to expect some downtime for your favorite services here and there. “It’s important to remember the internet is not a single entity,” says Ookla CTO Luke Deryckx. “It’s a series of interconnected networks, each with their own potential bottlenecks and potential scalability issues.”

    Major digital platforms should be able to handle isolated incidents pretty easily, meaning such episodes may not affect a vast majority of users. Leaders of the services that many of us are relying on, like the videoconferencing platform Zoom, are confident they’ll rise to the challenge. “Scaling is in Zoom’s DNA as a company,” says Zoom exec Janine Pelosi. “Our ability to continually and proactively manage the demand on our platform has allowed us to deliver at this all-important moment in time.”

    Still, you might soon notice that your movies and shows don’t look as good as they usually do, especially if you have a high-end TV and you’re used to 4K resolution video. Companies like Netflix, Facebook and YouTube have already agreed to reduce the quality of video streams in Europe as a way to reduce the overall strain on the networks. “If you are particularly tuned into video quality you may notice a very slight decrease in quality within each resolution,” Netflix executive Ken Florance said in a company blog post. “But you will still get the video quality you paid for.” Whether streams in the U.S. will be subject to this quality degradation has yet to be established. “On the ISP side, some partners in regions such as Latin America want us to reduce our bandwidth as soon as possible,” writes Florance. “But others want to continue with business as usual.”

    Even if the Internet itself stays stable, that won’t help the millions of Americans who depend on their schools or workplaces for a connection. Many Americans don’t have home broadband at all, particularly in low-income areas or rural communities. While the Federal Communications Commission says over 21 million Americans lack access to high speed broadband, an independent survey from BroadbandNow puts that number closer to 40 million, nearly double the FCC’s figure, based on self-reported data from ISPs. Microsoft’s estimates are even more alarming; it says an estimated 162 million Americans lack broadband internet at home. All this highlights the nation’s “digital divide,” or the stark contrast in broadband internet access between different communities.

    “We should celebrate that so many people have the ability to [work remotely], but we have to recognize that there are disconnected among us who don’t,” says FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, an advocate for fixing the broadband gap. “We’re going to get to the other side of this, and when we do we’re going to recognize that broadband is essential infrastructure, like water, like electricity, and that we all need to have access to it. We should recognize this moment for what it is, and that’s a clarion call that everyone in this country needs internet access to function in modern civic and commercial life.”

    What should you do if you’re having trouble with blurry video calls or slow downloads? If you’re using your wireless router to get online, keep in mind your other devices are competing for that same slice of internet your video meeting constantly requires, leading to in-home network congestion. You may want to consider directly connecting to your router with an Ethernet cable to free up wireless bandwidth, or simply turn off devices that aren’t in use until you’re done. You can also consider “timeshifting” your online activity, says Commscope’s Kurk.

    “We all seem to start things like WebEx meetings on the hour or on the half hour,” says Kurk. “That means that everybody is contacting the same servers at the same time. That might not be the best experience, and so if you offset this by even five or 10 minutes, you might have a better experience.”

    As for your movies and TV shows? There’s always Blu-Rays.

  • Mon, 23 Mar 2020 20:53:16 +0000

    I Finished Half-Life: Alyx in 12 Hours and Can’t Stop Thinking About It

    While exploring a worn-down warehouse, I look through a window and see a room full of zombies. Headcrabs — disgusting parasites that turn their hosts into monsters — twitch atop the heads of three former humans. No problem. I’ll just open the door, toss in a grenade, and mop up any survivors. I remove the pin and grab the handle. But it won’t turn. The door is locked, leaving me with a live grenade and nowhere to toss it.

    Later, I’m on my hands and knees, trying to dislodge a jar from behind a shelf. Inside is a bug that will heal my wounds, letting me survive to another day. The predicament is my own fault: in my haste to grab the jar off the shelf, I knocked it off instead of picking it up. After some doing, I’m just able to, palm out, roll the jar along the wall and free it.

    Then, while making my way through a dark distillery, I spot some ammunition in an upside-down crate. I lift the box to grab the ammo, and a bottle of wine I didn’t notice rolls off the shelf. I gasp, hold my breath, and grab the bottle just before it shatters on the ground. I’m not alone here, and I can’t, under any circumstances, let the other occupant know where I am, lest I meet an untimely end. Trembling, I put the bottle back on the shelf, grab the ammunition, and start breathing again.

    These are three moments from Half-Life: Alyx, the latest effort from developer and publisher Valve, now available for PC. It’s a virtual reality horror experience with tight combat and a frightening world that begs to be explored. Set after the events of Half-Life, but before Half-Life 2, Alyx follows protagonist Alyx Vance as she attempts to rescue her father and uncover the secret of the villainous Combine’s newest weapon.

    The Half-Life franchise, which launched in 1998, put Valve on the map. But it’s been dormant for more than a decade. Alyx is Valve’s first Half-Life game since 2007, when Half-Life 2: Episode Two famously ended on a cliffhanger. Fans of the series have long waited, and are still waiting, for Half-Life 3. Anticipation long ago turned to bitterness, then resignation and, finally, a joke.

    Valve knows fans want more Half-Life. Alyx may scratch that itch, but it’s a different beast. “It’s not Half-Life 3,” admits Valve level designer Corey Peters. “It’s a different game than people are expecting, but it’s a Half-Life game that’s continuing the story in a new way.”

    That, it turns out, is totally fine. VR gave Peters and the rest of the Alyx team a chance to try something new with the beloved franchise, and the result is a deeply enjoyable, gripping, strange experience. “The Half-Life universe seems to work really well in the VR space,” says Peters. And it’s evidence there are still plenty of stories to tell in the Half-Life universe.

    While Half-Life 2 was about moving quickly, shooting enemies and solving some physics puzzles, Alyx is a slower, more methodological, scarier game. It smartly leans on Half-Life’s horror elements, shifting from run-and-gun action to more careful play in the style of a Resident Evil or Alien: Isolation. The medium likely made that necessary: twitchy first-person shooters typically don’t work well in VR, but a game like this is right at home.

    “Because of the physical nature of [virtual reality], everything just takes time,” Peters says. “Everything from reloading the gun to positioning yourself to get line of sight. You have to physically duck down to take cover and peek your head around the corner.”

    The last third of the game in particular is so compelling that I had trouble putting it down during the final hours. While so many VR experiences are little more than tech demos, Alyx is a full experience. I beat it in 12 hours, but I’m a VR enthusiast with real-life firearms training. Other players will likely take longer. And I’m already planning on coming back soon.

    The only bummer is that many Half-Life fans may be left out. Alyx is built for virtual reality, meaning only those with a nice computer and a VR headset can play. The cheapest headsets that will run the game are the Oculus Guest and Oculus Rift S, which start at $399. Alyx was made for Valve’s own Index headset, which ranges from $499 to $999, depending on accessories.

    Still, Alyx could restore many a fan’s faith in Valve’s gamemaking abilities. Its last effort, a digital trading card game called Artifact, failed. That led to an understandable belief that Valve’s focus on its Steam digital games market — an estimated $4 billion business — has distracted it from making truly great games. Alyx should put that logic to bed. Indeed, it’s possible that Steam gave Valve the financial cushion it needed to take such a risk — it’s the kind of weird game you can make when you don’t have to worry as much about failing.

    Alyx is certainly still a risk for Valve. But in my eyes, it’s proof that the company can still make an amazing video game. I didn’t know I wanted that, but I did. I think Valve needed to prove it to itself, too. For years, fans have been asking if the company still had the magic touch. Could it make another video game that would linger in the mind long after the player had put it down?

    Well, a day after finishing it, I can’t stop thinking about Alyx.

  • Thu, 19 Mar 2020 21:14:01 +0000

    COVID-19 Scams Are Everywhere Right Now. Here’s How to Protect Yourself

    As the world struggles to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, people are scrambling to find trustworthy information about the spread of the disease, how they can protect themselves, how they can get tested, and more.

    Unfortunately, the spammers and scammers of the world are using the situation to take advantage of people, many of whom may be more vulnerable to their nefarious efforts than usual during these uncertain times. A handful of government agencies and other groups are stepping in to fight off the scammers. But there are still some steps you can take to avoid getting duped.

    Here’s what to know about the COVID-19 scams out there, as well as some precautionary measures you can take to avoid being scammed during the coronavirus outbreak.

    Keep up to date with our daily coronavirus newsletter by clicking here.

    You can’t buy a COVID-19 “cure”

    Many of the COVID-19 scams going around involve attempts by companies and individuals to sell products they claim to prevent or cure the novel coronavirus, which has already killed over 100 people in the United States alone. Scammers are peddling fake remedies ranging from colloidal silver to cow manure. But the novel coronavirus is exactly that — new — and there is no known cure yet. Vaccine trials are underway, but any scalable results are months away at best.

    “I’ve seen it throughout my career as a consumer protection attorney: scam artists trying to make a quick buck off people when they’re most vulnerable,” says Congresswoman Katie Porter, a California Democrat who recently grilled Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Robert Redfield with a series of coronavirus-related questions, eventually getting him to commit to free COVID-19 testing for every American, regardless of their insurance. “Many working Americans are juggling a lot right now — social distancing, childcare, potentially missed paychecks, and more — the last thing they want to be worrying about is bad actors taking potentially advantage of them.”

    The government fighting the scammers in other ways, too. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently issued warnings to seven different companies — including Quinessence Aromatherapy Ltd. and The Jim Bakker Show — promoting products with scientifically unsupported claims they can cure or prevent the novel coronavirus. Should the companies continue engaging in false advertising, the FTC may seek a federal court injunction and issue an order requiring customer refunds.

    “The FDA considers the sale and promotion of fraudulent COVID-19 products to be a threat to the public health,” said FDA Commissioner Stephen M. Hahn, M.D. in a statement concerning the warning letters. “We have an aggressive surveillance program that routinely monitors online sources for health fraud products, especially during a significant public health issue such as this one.”

    What’s the public health concern with false cures or treatments? If people buy these products in the hopes they will successfully cure or prevent someone from contracting the virus, it could encourage them to forgo social distancing rules, potentially infecting others.

    The SEC has also issued guidelines when it comes to solicitations for investments in products from publicly traded companies that can prevent or cure coronavirus (especially microcap or “penny stock” companies), stating that consumers should be cautious of companies making these unsubstantiated claims that “may be made as part of fraudulent ‘pump-and-dump’ schemes.”

    Watch out for scam emails and texts, too

    Phishing schemes, in which a scammer sends an email or text meant to trick you into handing over your personal info, have gotten pretty sophisticated in recent years, and can even include elements like official imagery or email addresses that look similar to email addresses used by official businesses. Likewise, phone calls and texts from scammers pretending to be official businesses may include information like your name or phone number to try to convince you that they’re real.

    To spot COVID-19 email and text scams, look for generic greetings (like “Hello, Sir/Madame”), requests for confirmation of personal information, or emails related to updating your billing details to judge whether or not an email from a company is legitimate. If a message’s language seems urgent, as though it’s attempting to pressure you into giving up your information to avert some sort of data disaster, it could very well be fake. If you receive a suspicious email from a particular company or even a friend or your employer, contact them separately via phone to verify the message before replying or otherwise acting on it.

    The number of COVID-related scams that will likely pop up in the coming months means we’ll all need to stay vigilant, experts say. “I’d tell people to assume every unsolicited effort to reach you or sell you something should be viewed with extreme skepticism,” says Linda Sherry, director of consumer advocacy group Consumer Action. The group offers a monthly email newsletter detailing popular new scams to watch for. “People should vet the offer by hanging up the phone, deleting the emails and then reaching out to the entity independently if indeed it is a firm you do business with,” she says. Of course, the best response to scammers is no response at all. “Never heard of ‘em, then delete, hang up and don’t worry about it,” says Sherry.

    Secure your online identity now

    As with all phishing scams, defending yourself from COVID-19 scams involves a combination of prep work and a little skepticism.

    The FTC recommends consumers practice proper online security, which includes backing up personal data and using two-factor authentication whenever possible to make it harder for scammers to gain access to your accounts, even if they do manage to figure out your username, password, or other personally identifiable information.

    Still, if you think you gave out your information inadvertently, or that someone already has your identifiable information — like your Social Security number or bank account information — you can visit the FTC’s Identity Theft site to protect yourself from further harm and alert businesses that your identity has been compromised.

    Please send any tips, leads, and stories to virus@time.com.
  • Thu, 19 Mar 2020 19:06:11 +0000

    Doom Eternal Is the Best Doom Game Ever Made, Period

    I am become death, the Slayer, the Hell-walker. I am Doomguy — protagonist of the Doom franchise and killer of the hordes of Hell. I walk through the installation housing the BFG-10,000, a powerful weapon Earth is using to beat back Hell itself. The employees part before me, quivering in fear. Soon, I will use the BFG to blow open a hole in Mars itself and move through the planet’s broken surface to deliver a reckoning of Biblical proportions upon the demons that plague my people.

    This is Doom Eternal, the ultimate power fantasy, and the latest installment in one of gaming’s oldest first-person shooter franchises. Doom has, and has alway had, a simple setup. You’re one man against hell — slaughtering demons with an arsenal of weapons and, if necessary, your bare fists. I grew up playing Doom and Doom II: Hell on Earth. They hold a special place in my heart. So please, believe me when I say that Doom: Eternal is the best game the franchise has ever produced.

    Doom Eternal is about momentum. If Doomguy stops moving, he’ll die. Thankfully, the game is built to keep the player moving. Doomguy is agile. He can leap, dash through the air, grab onto walls, and swing from various poles. Levels are like jungle gyms full of opportunities to put Doomguy above the fray or make a hasty escape.

    And while you’re running and jumping, you’ll kill lots of demons. Demons aren’t just enemies, they’re also resource nodes. Demons drop health, ammunition, and armor depending on how you kill them. Low on health? Stagger an Imp and rip him apart with your hands to get some health orbs. Running out of shotgun shells? Use the chainsaw to open up a Revenant and spawn ammunition. If your armor is almost gone, use the shoulder mounted flamethrower to turn a damned soul into a fountain of green armor shards. This mix of movement-based level design and resource management-based combat is a blast.

    Doom Eternal’s levels are an absolute delight, a great mix of exploration, exposition, and danger. Players who just want to run through the campaign will have plenty of fun, but players who want to slow down and explore a little will be rewarded with power-ups that change the way weapons function, customization points that change the way Doomguy deals and takes damage, secret soundtracks, and collectible toys Doomguy keeps on a shelf in a floating fortress high above Earth’s atmosphere. There’s also a lot of story and lore if you need to know the motivations of the Doomguy.

    Me? I don’t care. I’m here to rip and tear.

    Doomguy is the perfect avatar for those who feel powerless. He’s a relentless force of holy retribution, mysterious in his origins and unrelenting in his taste for vengeance against the demons who’ve wronged him. How did the demons wrong him? Don’t worry about that. Why does he have such incredible power? Stop asking so many questions. You’re playing Doom Eternal to kill demons, not interrogate its premise.

    Still, if Doom Eternal has one weak point — and it isn’t much of one — it’s that it attempts to combine violent slapstick action with a semi-serious exploration of its moody, demon-hating protagonist. But most gamers will probably skip the backstory, and that’s fine. This is a game about moving through space and slaying demons, not character development or world-building.

    Doom Eternal seems to know this too. Doomguy doesn’t engage with the story so much as move through it. Remember, this is a game about momentum, and Doomguy is an unstoppable force. There’s always a cutscene playing that explains why you’re at this particular facility killing this particular demon, but Doomguy doesn’t seem to care. When he reaches the BFG-10,000, he immediately presses the button to blow a hole into Mars. When it doesn’t work, he grips the weapon and repeatedly presses the “fire” button, his impatience clear as he listens to a computer explain the error.

    Doomguy doesn’t care. He just wants to get on with the slaughter. He just wants to feel powerful in the face of his demons. That’s something we can all get behind.

  • Thu, 19 Mar 2020 10:20:38 +0000

    The Tech That Could Be Our Best Hope for Fighting COVID-19—and Future Outbreaks

    Battling a pandemic as serious as COVID-19 requires drastic responses, and political leaders and public-health officials have turned to some of the most radical strategies available. What began with a lockdown of one city in China quickly expanded to the quarantine of an entire province, and now entire countries including Italy. While social isolation and curfews are among the most effective ways to break the chain of viral transmission, some health experts say it’s possible these draconian measures didn’t have to become a global phenomenon. “If health officials could have taken action earlier and contained the outbreak in Wuhan, where the first cases were reported, the global clampdown could have been at a much more local level,” says Richard Kuhn, a virologist and professor of science at -Purdue University.

    The key to early response lies in looking beyond centuries-old strategies and incorporating methods that are familiar to nearly every industry from banking to retail to manufacturing, but that are still slow to be adopted in public health. Smartphone apps, data analytics and artificial intelligence all make finding and treating people with an infectious disease far more efficient than ever before.

    “The connectivity we have today gives us ammunition to fight this pandemic in ways we never previously thought possible,” says Alain Labrique, director of the Johns Hopkins University Global -mHealth Initiative. And yet, to date, the global public–health response to COVID-19 has only scratched the surface of what these new containment tools offer. Building on them will be critical for ensuring that the next outbreak never gets the chance to explode from epidemic to global pandemic.

    Consider how doctors currently detect new cases of COVID-19. Many people who develop the hallmark symptoms of the -disease—fever, cough and shortness of breath—-physically visit a primary-care doctor, a health care provider at an urgent-care center or an emergency room. But that’s the last thing people potentially infected with a highly contagious disease should do. Instead, health officials are urging them to connect remotely via an app to a doctor who can triage their symptoms while they’re still at home.

    “The reality is that clinical brick-and-mortar medicine is rife with the possibility of virus exposure,” says Dr. Jonathan Wiesen, founder and chief medical officer of MediOrbis, a telehealth company. “The system we have in place is one in which everyone who is at risk is potentially transmitting infection. That is petrifying.” Instead, people could call a telemedicine center and describe their symptoms to a doctor who can then determine whether they need COVID-19 -testing—without exposing anyone else.

    In Singapore, more than a million people have used a popular telehealth app called -MaNaDr, founded by family physician Dr. Siaw Tung Yeng, for virtual visits; 20% of the physicians in the island country offer some level of service via the app. In an effort to control escalating cases of coronavirus there, people with symptoms are getting prescreened by physicians on MaNaDr and advised to stay home if they don’t need intensive care. Patients then check in with their telehealth doctor every evening and report if their fever persists, if they have shortness of breath or if they are feeling worse. If they are getting sicker, the doctor orders an ambulance to take those people to the hospital. Siaw says the virtual monitoring makes people more comfortable about staying at home, where many cases can be treated, instead of flooding hospitals and doctors’ offices, straining limited resources and potentially making others sick. “This allows us to care across distance, monitor patients across distance and assess their progression across distance,” says Siaw. “There is no better time for remote care monitoring of our patients than now.”

    Other at-home devices and services currently being used in the U.S. allow patients to measure dozens of health metrics like temperature, blood pressure and blood sugar several times a day, and the results are automatically stored on the cloud, from which doctors get alerts if the readings are abnormal.

    Telemedicine also serves as a powerful communication tool for keeping hundreds of thousands of people in a specific region up to date with the latest advice about the risk in their communities and how best to protect themselves. That can go a long way toward reassuring people and preventing panic and runs on health centers and hospitals.

    Beyond individual-level care, the data gathered by telemedicine services can be mined to predict the broader ebb and flow of an epidemic’s trajectory in a population. In the U.S., Kaiser Permanente’s tele-medicine call centers are now also serving as a bellwether for an anticipated surge in demand for health services. Dr. Stephen Parodi, national infectious–disease leader at Kaiser Permanente, was inspired by a Google project from a few years ago in which the company created an algorithm of users’ flu–related search terms to determine where clusters of cases were mounting. Parodi started tracking coronavirus–related calls from the health system’s 4.5 -million members in Northern California in February. “We went from 200 calls a day to 3,500 calls a day about symptoms of COVID-19, which was an early indicator of community–based transmission,” he says. “Our call volume was telling us several weeks before the country would have all of its testing online that we have got to plan for a surge in cases.”

    On the basis of the swell in calls nationwide, the hospital system is considering suspending elective surgeries based on local circumstances, in part to ensure that ventilators and other critical equipment would be available for an anticipated influx of COVID-19 patients with severe symptoms. Kaiser doctors also postponed appointments for routine mammograms and other cancer–screening tests and cut back on in-person appointments by turning most noncritical visits into virtual visits.

    The COVID-19 pandemic may be the trial by fire that telemedicine finally needs to prove its worth, especially in the U.S. Despite the fact that apps and technology for virtual health visits have existed for several decades, uptake in the country has been slow. Medicare only recently began reimbursing for telemedicine visits at rates comparable to in-person visits, and states have just begun to relax licensing regulations that prevent doctors in one state from -remotely treating patients in another state. “This -pandemic is almost like us crossing the Rubicon,” says Wiesen of MediOrbis. “It’s a clarion call for America and for the world on how important telemedicine is.” Parodi agrees. “I think this pandemic will bring in a fundamental change in the way we practice medicine and in the way the health care system functions in the U.S.,” he says. “We’re going to come out of this and -realize a lot of health care visits don’t have to be in person.”

    Other tech innovations that haven’t fully made their way to the public-health sector could also play a critical role in controlling this -pandemic—and future outbreaks. Taking a closer look at health-related data, such as electronic health records or sales of over-the-counter medications, can provide valuable clues about how an infectious disease like COVID-19 is moving through a population. Retail drugstores track inventory and sales of nonprescription fever reducers, for example, and any trends in those data might serve as an early, albeit crude, harbinger of growing spread of disease in a community. And given the proliferation of health–tracking apps on smartphones, analyzing data trends like a rise in average body temperature in a given geographical area could provide clues to emerging clusters of cases.

    Geotracking on phones, while controversial because of privacy issues, can also streamline the tedious task of contact tracing, in which scientists try to manually trace infected patients’ whereabouts to find as many people with whom they had direct contact and who could have been infected. In South Korea, this strategy helped identify many of the contacts of members of a Seoul church that formed the first major cluster of infections in the country. In countries with a less robust health care infrastructure, smartphones can be critical for gathering information about emerging infections on the ground. In Bangladesh, says Labrique, programs created to canvass for noncommunicable diseases like hyper-tension and diabetes are now being modified to include questions about COVID-19 symptoms. These types of real-time data can rapidly provide a snapshot of where and how fast the disease might be spreading, to distribute health care workers and -equipment where they’re needed most.

    It’s all about catching these cases as early as possible, to minimize the peak of a pandemic so the health system doesn’t get overwhelmed. But it’s not just about seeing the trends. Flattening the surge of an infectious disease also requires action, and that’s where the advice gets -muddier—but also where Big Data and artificial intelligence (AI) can provide clarity.

    By deeply analyzing the care that every COVID-19 patient receives, for example, AI can tease out the best treatment strategies. Jvion, a health care analytics company, is using AI to study 30 million patients in its data universe to identify people and communities at highest risk of COVID-19 on the basis of more than 5,000 variables that include not just medical history but also lifestyle and socioeconomic factors such as access to stable housing and transportation. Working with clients that include large hospital systems as well as small remote health centers, Jvion’s platform creates lists of people who should be contacted pro-actively to warn them about their vulnerability so health providers can create a care plan for them.

    In the case of COVID-19, that might include social distancing and avoiding large public gatherings. To help public-health departments better prepare communities for this and future outbreaks, the company has communicated with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to share what it has learned.

    Privacy issues, however, nest in every single byte of data about a person’s health. So the power of AI methods in controlling outbreaks depends on how effectively data can be anonymized. Only when people are assured of privacy can algorithms help to navigate the next big hurdle: predicting surges in cases that strain health care personnel and availability of supplies like ventilators, masks and gowns.

    If COVID-19 teaches public-health officials one thing, it’s that there are now tools available to help contain an infectious disease before radical measures like quarantines and curfews are needed. “What we were doing 10 years ago and what we are doing now is vastly different,” says Wiesen. “There is a tremendous opportunity here, and hopefully by [the next pandemic], the use of technology and data analytics is going to be light-years ahead of where it is today.”


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