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08 May 2020 | Posted by Innova Institute

Nine adventures in which ICT engineers have been essential during the COVID-19 crisis

The Innova Institute de La Salle-URL analyzes how ICT infrastructures, and the professionals who maintain them, allows adaptation in times of crisis.

Health professionals have been the main heroes of the pandemic; With their effort and dedication, they have helped alleviate the effects of the coronavirus. But the crisis caused by COVID-19 has had the involvement of many other professionals, who have been essential in the social adaptation required to sort the context.

The only way to stop the spread of contagion and avoid the collapse of health facilities and the economic debacle has been the confinement of the population, the closure of some economic activities, and the virtualization of many of these activities. The effects on the economy will undoubtedly be important. But, is it possible to imagine a pandemic like the current one without teleworking, distance shopping, electronic banking, internet, or with mobile phones that only allow making calls? What would have been the impact on health, the health system, and the economy?

Behind the apps that are used to buy remotely, the data that is consumed in mobile phones, the systems that are used to telework, and the information and communication technologies, there are people who keep them alive and working. The Innova Institute of La Salle-URL, in its quest to reflect on the effects of the pandemic in today's society and in the PostCOVID-19 era, has analyzed nine experiences of people working in information and communication technologies ( ICT) that have allowed society to move from the previous “normal” world, and face confinement with less impact than might have been thought.

These experiences have been adventures because basically, going from the usual normality to facing virtualization, where the only objectives are to reduce the risk of contagion and reduce the deterioration in the level of service of the business, is an adventure in the literal sense of the word. These have been adventures that have allowed, for example, setting up a call center in four days or coordinating very long working hours with a team, trying to reconcile the professional and family life.


These nine adventures exemplify how ICT engineers are being essential to survive the COVID-19 pandemic.


1. Get 500 people to work from home, in only three days.

Magazines such as National Geographic, El Mueble, and Lecturas, among others, belong to the RBA publishing group, based in Barcelona and with offices in four countries. Josep Cristóbal, the company's systems director, explains that “during COVID-19, the publication of magazines was considered an important service. It was our contribution to alleviating the effects of the pandemic. 80% of kiosks nationwide have remained open during the pandemic." Subscribers and content on the web should also be provided.

Few companies were prepared to telework. At RBA, Josep explains, “only salespeople - about 40 people - performed tasks remotely. The rest, 450 people in Barcelona, and 50 in delegations at Milan, Lisbon, Mexico, and Buenos Aires, worked face-to-face ”. Josep was not surprised when his CEO asked him: "Will we make it?" Josep's answer was safe and simple: "Yes". He trusted the technology and systems engineering people, regardless that "it was Wednesday when we started the preparation and it was said that the confinement was going to be decreed on Friday," he says.

They made quick decisions for each person to connect from home to their computers in RBA. With this, they produced manuals to prepare the domestic equipment, acquired licenses, and parameterized equipment. Emotionally, Josep remembers that “on Monday everything worked successfully, only half of the people went to the office. On Wednesday no one had to go. " It was a week of 24x7 work for the ICT team to ensure the distribution and administration processes, based on SAP, the edition of all magazines, from Adobe, and the updating of the websites were carried out as planned". "We had the feeling of changing a wheel circulating at 120 km/h on a highway", says Josep. In any case, he concludes, "we achieved two important things: the continuity of the publishing house and the staff felt calm and satisfied to be able to continue with their tasks during confinement, reconciling work and family life." The achievement was widely recognized and celebrated by the entire organization and staff.


2. To keep the Ariane 6 rocket on-orbit despite the confinement of the engineers and female engineers who supervise it.

GTD Sistemas de Información projects can be found at the heart of many civil and military programs. They are suppliers to the Ariane Group, the Centre National d'Études Spatiales (CNES) and the European Space Agency (ESA), among other companies. GTD has been involved in most of the major European space programs for more than thirty years, however, during the pandemic has faced several challenges.

Jordi Vila, head of logical security and open source systems, a telecommunications engineer at La Salle-URL, explains that "the main challenge we have faced is to ensure that most of the projects continue to operate" and, therefore, So much so that more than 300 engineers working on different projects, with different degrees of confidentiality, could telework from their homes whenever possible.

Since the beginning of 2019, approximately 25% of the GTD workforce could already telework one day a week on request. Accommodating these employees has not been a challenge since they have continued to work from their laptops through the VPNs (virtual private network) that linked their homes with the company located in Barcelona. Of course, they have opened new VPNs and have provided laptops to many employees as possible. One of the challenges has been ensuring that people who work on desktop computers can continue from their homes in complete safety and comfort. This has been accomplished by installing remote desktop accesses from their homes. In this way, their home computers go to work connected to their work computers with new security measures implemented by the Jordi Vila team. The third group of workers has been much more difficult to accommodate since, for security and confidentiality, they work on computers that are not connected to the network. For this group, specific workrooms have been set up in the company, isolated from the rest to avoid any type of contagion, special entry protocols have been established and workers have been provided with the relevant certificates so that they can go to work.

With these three levels of adaptation of the jobs, it has been achieved, according to Vila, “that projects such as the Ariane 6 control bank have not stopped and that as soon as the pandemic ceases, the components can be sent to French Guiana to be installed on this spacecraft." As in many other companies, the Jordi Vila team has struggled daily to ensure that all servers function correctly and that all connections are not only fast, but also secure.


3. To avoid the displacements for daily purchasing and maintaining an e-commerce platform for a community

Symplus, a startup linked to Innovatio, an incubator of technology-based companies at the Federal University of Río Grande - FURG in Brazil, was created in 2019 with the idea of ​​developing digital solutions for small companies in the area of ​​retail trade, both for formal and informal services, for the technical and financial limitations of potential users. The platform, which began development in January 2020 and was scheduled to be completed in June, changed its planning due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the social isolation measures announced by the government in mid-March.

According to Juan Rodrigo Oliveira, CEO of Symplus, they had to accelerate development and anticipate testing, because their platform could help local commerce during the pandemic. "In the first two weeks, six hours of sleep became a luxury, but we managed to launch the first versions in late March," says Oliveira. In total there are four ICT engineering people working in isolation and meeting only by videoconference: Oliveira, who as CEO is the only one with a full shift and who is also responsible for the development of the service structure, and three other people on part-time (one administrative and two developers).

The electronic commerce platform has the support of the Rio Grande city council. The tool is inserted into a web portal of the city council created to support the community at this critical moment. During confinement, it is available free of charge and has a catalog of products and services. Orders arrive at stores and from there they can communicate with the customer through WhatsApp, a technology that is friendly and accessible to the majority of the population. Other features are still being developed, all aimed at promoting local consumption in small businesses. Juan Rodrigo Oliveira states that "we have given small businesses in the community the opportunity to continue providing service to their customers and to them, reducing the risk of contagion due to displacement to stores."


4. To ensure data transmission capacity for a society that has been forced, overnight, to go into the virtual world.

Telephonic network system technicians are responsible for managing the maintenance of telephone system facilities, as well as data networks. Most of the telephony operators have offered an increase in gigabytes of data to their customers, also, network traffic has increased by 40% in Spain, due to the consumption of instant messaging and calls via mobile networks and data, in addition to teleworking and e-teaching activities. The service on the network is being stable without major problems, despite occasional spikes in traffic. The providers monitor the infrastructure continuously in order to plan the correct operation during periods of maximum demand.

In fact, companies like Netflix have agreed with the European Union to lower the speed of content delivery by 25% to help reduce traffic on European networks. Other Cloud-type services and multiplayer connections, among others, are also responsible for a certain slowdown in the network. Finally, the priorities of ICTs, which work in any of the companies linked to the telephone service, are to guarantee communications and reliable access to communication. In fact, the operators have put big data, anonymized data management, and mobility data, among others, at the service of public administrations and health systems, in order to contribute to the containment of the COVID-19 outbreak.


5. Digitizing experiences in museums, events, and stores to help ease the confinement

The crisis generated by the pandemic has caused many companies to adapt their business models towards more digital solutions. Some examples are virtual access to museums, online participation in events (such as the Tribeca film festival in New York), or living virtual reality experiences without the need to leave home. They can be enjoyed thanks to the work carried out by ICT engineers. In this case, Iñigo Gainza, engineer, Master in Project Management from La Salle-URL, and specialized in emerging digital solutions such as virtual reality and augmented reality, helps to understand how these solutions can contribute in times of confinement.

Despite the fact that the health crisis has forced the suspension of events such as the Mobile World Congress, Iñigo Gainza affirms that “this also means that the demand for web platforms where these events can take place virtually has increased. An example is concerts that were previously to be held in a stadium and are now held online or an eSports final that is offered in streaming with added services ”. In the cultural sector, as an example, Gainza mentions that "dozens of museums have chosen to offer their catalog online to have a similar experience without leaving home."

Behind this work, are the engineers who face their own challenges of working in confinement. Gainza asserts that, based on his experience, “in general, the way of working has changed. There are colleagues who have restricted their working hours due to a family situation, for example, working from 6 in the afternoon until 3 in the morning because the day is busy, as they must take care of the children ”.

This confinement situation has shown that you can enjoy cultural experiences without leaving home. But it has also shown, in a palpable way, that this is possible thanks to the efforts of ICT engineers who, overcoming all the challenges of the situation, help the cultural sector to continue despite the COVID-19.


6.How to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of COVID-19 treatments in hospitals

Health professionals are proving irreplaceable during the pandemic, but some of the tasks they have carried out have been accomplished thanks to the use of information and communication technologies (ICT). It is not easy to transform a live health environment into a virtual health environment when, in confinement, contact between patients and their families is more important than ever. To analyze this problem, the Innova Institute has spoken with Geraldo Aguiar and Luis Goulart, the managers of the Center for Innovation and Technology in Health (CITS) of the Ernesto Dornelles Hospital (HED) in Porto Alegre, Brazil. CITS is part of the Pacto Alegre Project - advised by Josep Miquel Piqué, director of Internationalization and Innovation at La Salle-URL and head of La Salle Technova - and aims to develop initiatives for the hospital's digital transformation with a focus on employees, patients, and families.

During the pandemic, the CITS ICT team is being the ally of the healthcare providers for patient care. "In less than 48 hours, we set an environment in place so that hospital employees could work safely from their homes," explains Luís Goulart. In this sense, Geraldo Aguiar emphasizes: "It was possible to provide patient care without risk of contagion from employees." In addition, Goulart comments that "the call center was created, from scratch, in four days" and highlights that "two objectives were achieved: to avoid the displacement of employees with symptoms and to reduce the collapse in the assistance posts".

Aguiar comments that "from the beginning, alternatives were proposed to improve the treatment of the patient and the relationship with their families." First, the virtual tour: through tablets, a communication channel was developed between the isolated patient and his family. A project that will be very useful is also being finalized: teleconsultation. In this way, the process for diagnosing a patient with symptoms is standardized. On this, Goulart explains that "it covers the entire patient process, more than 40 functional requirements, and connects the doctor with specialists in other hospitals." And he adds: "All this is complemented by digital assistance panels, which allow having the patient's status data at all times within the reach of the medical team." This improves patient care. “With the perception of ICT focused on employees, patients and families, future projects were anticipated, allowing the fight against the pandemic to be much more efficient and, therefore, more lives have been saved”, concludes Aguiar.


7. Digitizing the maintenance of technological infrastructures

ICTs generate communication and information management infrastructures, and also make it easier for other infrastructures to continue operating. In recent years, the digital transformation process has accelerated in sectors such as machinery maintenance. "Many companies can use digital applications that allow remote maintenance of machinery, without the need for physical presence," explains Iñigo Gainza, who continues: "On the other hand, companies will need more time to carry out developments that require equipment ( hardware) or specific devices, since it is not the same equipment at home as in the office, and moving that equipment is expensive ”. All this from the perspective of the own work of maintenance of the structures. However, the challenges do not end here.

The people involved, engineers are the prop of this type of solution in situations such as confinement. The pandemic has presented communication, coordination, or equipment use challenges, even in software industries, where the product is only digital. In any case, Gainza's vision is clear: "Despite these challenges, thanks to the internet, companies can develop and deliver digital services in the same way." Future prospects, whether in the medium or long term, due to changes in people's habits and the greater adoption of digital technologies, indicate that those professionals with technological skills will be needed even more. Gainza believes that “the demand for new web developers will increase since an escalation in demand is expected from those companies that want to digitize their user experiences, such as, stores; so that everything we could do physically in a store, can also be experienced digitally without leaving our house "


8. Continuing the operation of a local government through a virtual experience during the confinement

COVID-19 has been completely unexpected and has posed challenges in logistics and coordination for the different administrative and governmental areas, such as that of the Mosquera mayor's office in Colombia. Mireya Calderón, ICT director of the local government, explains how this transformation was carried out: “It would not have been possible without the technology team betting on reinventing themselves to work through virtual means, duplicating their work and bringing the area to work up to 16 hours a day to ensure connectivity and quality of communications, availability of equipment, and appropriate software in the different areas ”. Calderón explains that the process has led them "to support virtual meetings with digital registration processes to meet public parameters and to support digital adaptation for areas such as legal, virtual store, contracting and coordination of the different secretariats, such as education with schools; competitiveness with companies, and health with different institutions ”.

They have relied on open access communication tools such as Zoom, which was later changed to Google's Meet, which offers more capacity; and on social networks such as Facebook Live, which allowed the creation of virtual programs and newsletters for social control exercises, in addition to the traditional channels of questions, complaints and claims, the 'contact us' email, and a telephone line for each secretariat. Regarding technological capabilities, there was a need to train officials and users in the use of the tools, this was developed through existing programs such as "Live Digital", but migrated to virtual platforms. Initially, there was fear of learning, but the restrictions were overcome.

Simultaneously and taking advantage of access to information, a big data application is being created to analyze and propose competitiveness programs and coordinate health and financial aid processes, which forced the revision and updating of the mayor's databases. "A limitation has been network capacity and bandwidth, which requires supplier companies to ensure quality," confirms Mireya Calderón, validating that the challenges have not ended.


9.  Avoid contagion during purchases in retail stores

The company IoT Tooq Soluções, located in the Brazilian city of São Paulo, has specialized in the integration of online and offline data measurement technologies for the retail sector (supermarkets and clothing stores). After spending several years researching and developing IoT (Internet of Things) devices, its clients, clothing store chains and supermarkets have a network of intelligent sensors that allow them to understand the behavior of buyers in each of the stores. These sensors provide information to propose, through a system based on a neural network, improvements in the consumer shopping experience with a very low impact on the infrastructure of the store.

The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic caused a new need in supermarkets and clothing stores: social distance. Tooq's founding partners, Ronaldo Moura and Bruno Almeida, wondered how they could help stores keep the distance between shoppers and thus avoid contagion. "Although it was not initially intended for this, the intelligent sensor network provides us with part of the information necessary to know the distance between people," says Ronaldo Moura. According to some of its clients - among them Besni, one of the largest clothing retailers in the capital of São Paulo, and the Santo supermarket, the largest chain in Sorocaba - they adapted the system so that “they could make the best use of the social distance indicator, either to meet the average distance criterion of two meters or to improve customer comfort ”, added Bruno Almeida. In this way, the Besni and Santo stores have already started to use the system and have been able to have their stores open giving greater security to buyers.

In parallel, a new line appeared from which to add value: the detection of the body temperature of the buyers. Developed by six people from the technical team in approximately ten days, the neural network system was adapted to new devices to monitor people's body temperature. Through a special thermal camera, which is being tested in Canada and is already in the final stretch of testing, its implementation can be started in the first stores in Brazil in the coming weeks. "Our biggest challenge has always been to improve people's shopping experience, we collaborate with the value that information on the 'behavior' of buyers brings to the benefit of that experience; now we add a value that will be fundamental in that experience: security during the purchase ", added Moura.


In summary

Infrastructures make life possible. ICT infrastructures have made possible to monitor health, provide psychological support, and facilitate and speed up communications between people, etc. Behind the ICT infrastructures are ICT engineers who have turned their computer and communication systems into savers of lives and business endangered by the pandemic.

What has been learned for future pandemics? Perhaps you will never be fully prepared for a circumstance like that of COVID-19, perhaps health systems must improve to be better prepared, but the virtualization of our activity, compatible with a life rich in social relationships, will help to overcome future crises. And behind this virtualization, there must be a good number of dedicated ICT professionals who keep them "alive".


This was written collaboratively by:

Francesc Miralles, Fàtima Canseco, Montserrat Peñarroya, Alessandra Giglio Hirtenkauf, Juan Nihoul, and John Sanabria.


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