Baiba Braže is the ambassador of Latvia to the United Kingdom and a forthcoming NATO assistant Secretary General. We interviewed her to hear how digital technologies are helping Latvia to tackle Covid-19 and how best to support startups through the crisis.
Latvia declared a state of emergency on March 12th and subsequently closed its border with Russia and Belarus. However, contrary to most European countries, Latvia decided to issue only a ‘partial’ lockdown. While quarantine was strictly monitored and social distancing enforced, shops, cafes and hairdressers were not closed with trips to the countryside, second homes and walks allowed and encouraged. While the country is over twice the size of the Netherlands, Latvia only has a population of 2 million and Baiba claims “staying more than 2 metres away from each other did not seem like a difficult task” for Latvian citizens.
The role of digital technologies in Latvia
Baiba Braže believes the crisis has proven that internet coverage and digitalization of services, including government services, are crucial for maintaining economic and social activity during the period of social distancing. On the other hand, Baiba emphasises, this has not replaced the need for trust and resilience in society, transparency and credible decision making by governments.
In this respect, Baiba argues that Latvia has been right in its drive to invest in superfast broadband (among the top 10 globally) and 4G/5G mobile networks (as an illustration, about 40% of entertainment is watched on mobile devices) since the 1990s. It has enabled companies, services, products and, most importantly, mind-sets to be less dependent on the physical delivery of solutions. By already being proficient in utilising digital solutions, Latvia had a head-start and Baiba claims,
“The Cabinet of Ministers already had everything in place to meet and adopt to making decisions remotely”.
Through the adoption of innovative solutions such as digital signatures, and the availability of hundreds of e-services through the E-Latvija portal, many businesses saw the crisis as an opportunity and quickly adapted. The crisis in Latvia has seen EdTech, e-culture, and online entertainment flourish. Baiba reminds us that meetings of the Latvian Cabinet have been online for 20 years.
Digital communication tools have been among the most important during quarantine – they have ensured credible experts are empowered, warnings are heard, virtual meetings enabled, and businesses made aware of new opportunities. Baiba argues this is why the Latvian government allocated significant resources to the Media Support Fund and electronic broadcasters to finance Covid-19 related quality reporting to fight disinformation and ensure the survival of the media.
In short – Latvia’s digital infrastructure and variety of digital tools have played a crucial role in timely knowledge sharing for research and pandemic suppression, enabling remote work and sustaining cross-border business activity. The importance of societal engagement has also become an important aspect during the lockdown, allowing families and friends to stay connected, regardless of geographical distance.
“The pandemic has sharply exposed the interdependence of modern economies and the connectedness of people. To tackle this pandemic, countries will have to realise that the only way of tackling the crisis is by working together”.
Using startup ecosystems to battle Covid-19
The global nature of the crisis has brought together people in a global effort to tackle Covid-19 challenges. For example, Latvia’s hackathon HackForce has been a great way to test early stage ideas, and startups are often more capable of generating and validating ideas in a limited-time sprint setting, unlike established enterprises with more complex decision-making processes. Hence, at times like this, where governments are relaxing regulations to speed up development and manufacturing in certain sectors, it is great to have a startup ecosystem that can provide mentoring to the teams and help them hit the needed goals during these 48 hours. Thus, the startup ecosystem is a great asset to solve emerging challenges that were not present just weeks ago.
“I personally also truly enjoy the mood, creativity and ‘can do’ attitude of the startup community in Latvia. They bring down silos, but bring together people, ideas, solutions from most varied backgrounds. It is our future.”
For example, Baiba draws upon one team from the Hackforce, which have fully covered the Latvian government procurement of face-shields and currently are helping other countries too.
Other teams with experience in 3D simulations have adapted their expertise and within days developed a 3D simulation demonstrating how to safely put on and take off Personal Protective Equipment, reducing risks of being contaminated with COVID-19. Similarly, a team at Riga Technical University developed a prototype for a ventilator, and so on so forth.
Baiba argues that a Hackathon is only the start of the journey – and we must support startup ideas throughout their further development as well as through funding & legislation challenges. For example, medical devices might need lobbying for quicker certification & similar situations. Or procurement, logistics – faster and more precise digital solutions are needed to enable deliveries while governments are responsible that borders are open for a free movement of goods and services.
Combating the spread of misinformation
Technology has no mind of its own and its usage depends on the user. Latvia has witnessed robotrolling, and social media platforms used as echo-chambers that amplify certain opinions. Some less democratic countries can have more control over their social media and can suppress certain information more easily. In Western countries, big technology giants are often left self-regulating.
But – algorithms are used to auto-produce unique fake-news content and the task of identifying the misinformation has to be automated, too. Thus, technology that would enable to filter the information and automatically tag fake-news would be helpful.
“I believe it is the responsibility and obligation of big tech companies to make sure that they deliver.”
However, Baiba claims there is also a cultural element to it. The Covid-19 crisis has exposed the dilemma of how much a state should intervene in the personal freedoms of the society and of speech. Technology can offer more in this regard than people are willing to accept, like facial recognition, movement tracking, automatically removing posts from social media with certain keywords and more. It is a societal debate rather than a technological one, and different countries will have varied policies.
Communication with the startup community is essential – governments need to communicate with, understand and support startups where necessary.
Ensuring that viable and good businesses do not go under is a high priority. Especially for early stage startups, what matters is being able to retain talent and their team. In the early stages, the startup business model is often focused on developing products rather than cashflow. Until profitable, startups tend to live from one investment round until the next investment round. In times of crisis investors are on stand-by, so startups need access to quick financing. This is where government support should come in.
Government adoption of digital technologies post Covid-19
Regarding internet availability and digital government services, Latvia has done its homework well in advance. There is almost 100% internet availability for businesses, including high internet speeds, and many people using their mobile phones for their home internet, contributing to the flexibility of the workforce. The authorisation for government services through retail banking and digital signatures has been operational for years and people are used to receiving many services digitally. This has helped Latvia ‘soft-land’ during self-isolation.
“The crisis has validated the direction of government policies and I believe many countries will follow in a similar vein.”
More controversial use of digital technologies by governments include technologies like facial recognition and movement tracing. While it can be more easily justifiable in Western countries to deploy such technologies for Covid-19 containment, it remains an open question – would that give away too much individual freedom?