What can we know, when can we know it, and what can we do with what we know? As COVID-19 moves through our world wreaking destruction upon our social fabric, our lives, and our economies these questions return to haunt me. 

I have recently engaged in lengthy conversations with people whose life work is to develop the tools that allow us to understand what is happening in the world through “open source” information, that is information that can be gathered publicly via newspapers, television, and radio and ever so much more from our increasing wired world. Many of the people with whom I spoke are in commerce, using data to understand consumer trends, habits and desires. Others are from the political world, using publicly available demographic and digital footprints to predict voter behavior and to target political ads. Still others are from the world of intelligence, observing both friend and foe for hints of impeding danger. Data gathering, data analysis, and clear courses of recommended action can be inferred by surveillance systems of ever increasing power and sophistication and by people who know how to use them.

My conclusion: We can predict impending epidemics and do so early on. We could have, and very likely did, observe the earliest traces of COVID-19 to accurately predict the gathering storm. Exactly when and how clearly the disaster was foreseen and by who will be, and should be, a subject of intense scrutiny. Surely we in the US and others around the world did not make good use of the information available in plain sight to protect us. My conversations have also convinced me that even now we are not using our resources anywhere near their full capacity, to identify communities in need and to predict with pinpoint accuracy where the next hot spot for infection will be, whether it be next door or halfway around the world. Such information is gold, as we know now how important nipping the epidemic in the bud is to save lives. 

And for the future. Will we learn our lesson? Will we develop the institutions both public (governmental) and private (companies and non for profit organizations) with the capabilities not only to observe but to understand global disease trends and the threat they pose? Will our leaders understand that the natural world resembles a giant machine learning device constantly generating trillions upon trillions of variants of disease pathogens to crack humanities defensive code? Will we remember that nature is the greatest terrorist of all and make full use of the means we have to defend ourselves against this relentless foe?

In what follows I summarize what I learned from these conversations.

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Originally published on Forbes (April 22, 2020)