Examining disinformation ahead of Canada’s federal election

U of T researchers observe potential election interference efforts on Twitter

Examining disinformation ahead  of Canada’s federal election

Earlier this summer, reports surfaced that possible automated pro-Trump Twitter accounts from the United States were using hashtags to interfere in Canada’s upcoming federal election.

These alleged bots — broadly defined as non-human actors created to mimic human behaviour online — can contribute to an already-existing problem of disinformation and ‘fake news.’

While Twitter has denied any large-scale disinformation campaigns, others have suggested that manipulation attempts are simply a reality of today’s social media landscape.

Amid the proliferation of false information online, how could one spot bots in their feed?

#TrudeauMustGo

Perhaps the most infamous case of social media election interference is the Russian online disinformation campaign. According to the Mueller report, it is alleged to have contributed to the election of Donald Trump. However, as campaigning heats up for Canada’s federal election on October 21, U of T researchers have been looking into how automated social media accounts could be generating and spreading digital disinformation at home.

Dr. Alexei Abrahams, a research fellow at The Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy, has assisted researcher Dr. Marc Owen Jones in exploring the contentious issue. By examining 34,000 tweets posted between September 3 and 5 of this year, Jones found that 15 per cent of the approximately 4,896 accounts using #TrudeauMustGo were linked to American far-right-wing politics. According to Jones, the behaviour of these accounts was consistent with that of political bots or orchestrated ‘trolls.’

In July, the National Observer reported on similar bot interference after #TrudeauMustGo became a trending topic on Canadian Twitter. In this instance, 31,600 tweets posted between July 16–17 were analyzed, with some accounts displaying “indicators of inauthentic activity.”

In an email to The Varsity, Abrahams confirmed that he and Jones were collecting data, but maintained that the “Canadian elections are not a major target for inauthentic, coordinated behavior.”

Abrahams discussed the potential consequences of disinformation online in a recent interview with CTV News. “You reach a place, when you’re exposed to so much misinformation, that you’re agnostic toward any sort of information,” he said.

“It ultimately leads to a sort of withdrawal from political life and from the activity of inquiring, because you just become frustrated and skeptical, then ultimately disenchanted.”

Automated disinformation

While much of the conversation around automated social media accounts and their contribution to new concerns surrounding ‘fake news’ involves the United States and the United Kingdom, there have been multiple documented cases of attempted election interference in Canada.

In 2017, university professors Fenwick McKelvey and Elizabeth Dubois released a study on the role of bots in the Canadian media landscape. The study found that Canada has not critically engaged with the role of bots in its democratic processes.

Citing the 2015 federal election campaign, McKelvey and Dubois illustrated how frequent automated tweets using the #cdnpoli hashtag amplified anti-Stephen Harper sentiment.

However, the researchers also highlighted the potential of bots for positive political engagement, including automated accounts created to increase government transparency.

More recently, Global Affairs Canada shared a report by Rapid Response Mechanism — a G7 response coordination group — outlining how “coordinated inauthentic [online] behaviour” was present during Alberta’s 2019 provincial election. While the report notes that the ‘inauthentic behaviour’ did not seriously interfere in the election, the existence of the coordinated disinformation has some questioning the power of bots in democratic processes.

Other reports have suggested that bot activity had amplified the tweets of now-Premier of Ontario, Doug Ford, during his provincial election campaign last year.

How to spot and prevent disinformation

Dr. Brett Caraway, an assistant professor at U of T’s Institute of Communication, Culture, Information & Technology, discussed the pressing concerns of false reporting in democratic institutions in an interview with The Varsity.

“When you have bots or fake news outlets, any sort of party that is interested in influencing a political outcome in an election, it creates some very real level of confusion over facts,” he said. “And that’s the part that I think is so dangerous to a healthy thriving democracy.”

When asked how users could protect themselves from being exposed to or perpetuating disinformation, Caraway outlined several measures. Users should question anonymous sources, examine URLs for proper sourcing, identify the dates on articles, read beyond headlines, check multiple sources, and put in effort when reading and sharing content.

Broadly, however, he believes that the government should take more measures to promote media literacy because it is “just as important as learning to read and write at this stage.”

According to Caraway, media literacy education should focus on three components: how to find authoritative information, how to value different kinds of information, and how to meaningfully participate in political discourse online.

“All of us are in the position of being broadcasters today,” he said. “And being in that position of a broadcaster comes with responsibility and obligation to engage in ethical political discourse.”

Disclosure: Kaitlyn Simpson previously served as Volume 139 Managing Online Editor of The Varsity, and currently serves on the Board of Directors of Varsity Publications Inc. 

Spyware company introduces unprecedented human rights policy

U of T’s Citizen Lab researcher likens NSO Group’s reforms to “tokenism”

Spyware company introduces unprecedented human rights policy

Controversial Israel-based spyware company, NSO Group, has introduced a new human rights policy to complement its business practices — an unparalleled measure for the global spyware industry.

While NSO Group says the policy “embeds relevant human rights protections throughout [its] business and governance systems,” critics, including Amnesty International and U of T’s The Citizen Lab at the Munk School, have argued otherwise.

NSO Group’s track record

NSO Group is a cyber-intelligence company that sells technologies for monitoring communications of various targets. Earlier this year, it was partially acquired by Novalpina Capital LLP, a private equity fund based out of the United Kingdom.

According to its website, NSO maintains that it sells its technology to governments because “terrorists, drug traffickers, pedophiles, and other criminals have access to advanced technology and are harder to monitor, track, and capture than ever before.”

However, the company has also faced backlash for its practices. Research conducted at U of T’s Citizen Lab — an interdisciplinary research organization exploring digital surveillance, censorship, and cyberattacks — has discovered that NSO Group’s spyware, Pegasus, was used to target activists, journalists, and members of civil society in countries such as Mexico, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Most recently, in May, reports surfaced that NSO software was used to allegedly spy on a lawyer through a vulnerability in WhatsApp. The lawyer — who remains anonymous due to fears for their safety — was involved in a civil lawsuit against NSO.

In June, David Kaye, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, called for a freeze on selling and using spyware until “human rights-compliant regulatory frameworks are in place.”

In his announcement, Kaye said, “The private surveillance industry is a free-for-all.”

Following Kaye’s call, researchers at Citizen Lab released a statement about the harmful consequences of the commercial spyware industry.

“In light of the concerns raised by the Special Rapporteur reports, companies like Novalpina Capital LLP… must take responsibility for the harms caused by the surveillance technology manufactured and sold by NSO Group,” wrote the researchers.

“Such a step would mean respecting international human rights treaties and, as a starting point, complying with the moratorium demanded by the Special Rapporteurs.”

A new policy

NSO Group’s new policy, announced on September 10, is intended to align the company’s practices with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The aim is to help the company identify possible risks for human rights abuses and work to prevent misuse of its products.

When the company announced the new policy, co-founder and CEO of NSO Group Shalev Hulio said that the policy “publicly affirms our unequivocal respect for human rights and our commitment to mitigate the risk of misuse.”

“With this new Human Rights Policy and governance framework, we are proud to further enhance our compliance system to such a degree that we will become the first company in the cyber industry to be aligned with the Guiding Principles,” he added.

Alongside the human rights policy, NSO also announced a new External Whistleblower Policy and three new senior advisors.

The advisors — United States Governor Tom Ridge, former French Ambassador to the United States Gèrard Araud, and former Assistant Secretary at the United States’ Department of Homeland Security Juliette Kayyem — are set to support the company in its partnerships with governments.

The response

In the wake of the policy announcement, advocates and researchers have grappled with the question: can spyware and human rights work in tandem?

In an email to The Varsity, Citizen Lab Senior Legal Advisor Siena Anstis wrote that the policy “does not inspire confidence.”

“It’s easy to put words to paper, but we still have no real information on how the company will be transparent regarding its business practices or what types of oversight and accountability structures are in place to ensure real implementation of the ‘human rights policy,’” Anstis wrote.

“Without transparency or accountability, the policy is meaningless.”

When asked if NSO’s human rights policy would spark similar policies in the industry, Anstis wrote that “it’s hard to predict whether other companies in this industry are going to follow suit.”

However, she noted that “it certainly wouldn’t be challenging for other spyware companies to engage in the same level of tokenism.”

In a public proclamation, Deputy Director of Amnesty Technology Danna Ingleton also criticized NSO Group in response to the policy.

“The company needs to demonstrate [that this reformed policy] is more than an attempt to whitewash its tarnished reputation,” she said. “It doesn’t get to pick and choose when it should respect human rights — all companies have this responsibility anyway.”

Ingleton called for more government regulation for the spyware industry.

“Governments also need to act,” she said. “There needs to be tougher legal requirements on respecting human rights for the spyware industry, which time and time again has trampled on the rights to privacy, freedom of opinion and expression.”

Anstis further advocated for tightened regulation in the spyware industry.

“In addition to pushing for reform,” she said, “the public should be calling for more transparency on when and how their governments deploy this technology and the safeguards in place to ensure it is not abused.”

Disclosure: Kaitlyn Simpson previously served as Volume 139 Managing Online Editor of The Varsity, and currently serves on the Board of Directors of Varsity Publications Inc.

The Entrepreneurship Hatchery hosts Demo Day 2019

Magnetic aircraft-braking system takes home $20,000 grand prize

The Entrepreneurship Hatchery hosts Demo Day 2019

On September 4, the Entrepreneurship Hatchery’s NEST program hosted its ninth annual Demo Day for student-led startups. The event, hosted by the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, took place at the Myhal Centre for Engineering Innovation & Entrepreneurship. The 14 finalists from the program pitched innovations, ranging from addressing energy poverty in developing nations, to pre-emptive brain disorder diagnosis, and more.

A panel of professors, industry leaders, philanthropists, and Hatchery alumni awarded $42,500 in seed funding; $20,000 went to the first-place team, $10,000 to each of the two runners-up, and a $2,500 Orozco Prize to one crowd-favorite presentation.

The contactless airplane-braking company Aeroflux was awarded first place for its working demonstration of its patent-pending magnetic-field brakes. The team, composed of Nikola Kostic, Stevan Kostic, and Roshan Varghese, demonstrated its device, which minimizes the wear and tear on braking gear and could save airplane operators up to $7.2 million during a plane’s lifetime.

The team won the Clarke Prize for leadership in engineering design in May of this year. It plans to continue developing the technology within the U of T startup community.

Sparrow, an e-sports analytics tool, and eXamify, an end-to-end assignment marking solution, each won $10,000 Hatchery Prizes as runners-up. The team behind Sparrow developed an artificial intelligence agent which was fed by tracking in-game movement and post-game statistics. Sparrow delivers player-specific coaching suggestions in League of Legends, an online multiplayer game, with plans to expand into other competitive titles in the coming year, and eXamify is an all-in-one online test management suite that simplifies test grading for TAs and professors.

Crowd-favorite startup Brainloop was awarded the Orozco Prize for its predictive brain diagnosis platform. Up to 20 per cent of brain disorders are misdiagnosed, and Esteban Arellano and Juan Egas aim to use artificial intelligence to analyze test results to improve upon this rate. The duo hope that hospitals will adopt the tool to support diagnoses as early as April 2020.

Throughout the course of the four-month NEST program, the cohort developed products spanning a variety of markets. Other teams shone as well: Team Connct focused its efforts on predictive content suggestions and auto-replies for Instagram influencers, while Team OpenRace developed a platform for runners to compete in real time, from around the world.

As an early-stage startup incubator, the NEST program helps new founders understand the markets they’re trying to enter.

“In 10 or 15 years, we’ll be able to point at successful startups and serial entrepreneurs and say that they had a formative and enabling experience here. In that sense it’s quasi-educational,” said Professor Jonathan Rose, Chair of the Hatchery Advisory Board.

“The key for engineers is to pay attention to the business. Engineers have lots of great ideas, but they need to know if there’s a market for it.”

Disclosure: Nikhi Bhambra was The Varsity’s 2018–2019 Front End Web Developer.

How new technologies are transforming care for dementia patients

A conversation with Dr. Arlene Astell: using tech to improve the quality of life for aging population

How new technologies are transforming care for dementia patients

Dementia is taking a serious toll on Canada’s aging population: roughly 76,000 people are diagnosed with the condition every year. It is estimated that the number of Canadians living with dementia may even double over the next 20 years due to our growing senior demographic. 

Diagnosing, treating, and managing dementia brings many challenges for both those affected by it and their caregivers. Fortunately, the rapid growth of technology in recent years has sparked innovation which help tackle these issues. But lacklustre awareness and slow implementation of these technologies have limited their outreach.

Time is of the essence in dementia research. The surge in innovation, coupled with our aging population, means that we need to quickly change the way we treat dementia. 

What is dementia? 

Dementia is a medical term that covers a variety of syndromes affecting the brain. It can be caused by conditions such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and head trauma. Patients affected by dementia experience memory loss, difficulties with problem solving and, in some cases, severe changes in mood.

Treating dementia can come with many challenges. However, technology can play a huge role in mitigating some of these obstacles.

Dr. Arlene Astell, an Ontario Shores Research Chair in Community Management of Dementia at U of T’s Medical Sciences Department, recently co-authored a paper summarizing developments on the diagnosis, treatment, and management of dementia.

The paper highlighted the multifaceted uses of technology in treating a syndrome like dementia.  

“Direct healthcare has very little to offer people once they have been diagnosed,” wrote Astell to The Varsity. While a range of medical interventions and services to support lifestyle management can be offered to patients with conditions such as diabetes and cancer, such is not the case with dementia.

“There are no disease-modifying therapies available,” continued Astell. Patients may only receive some medication for symptom management, which is not available for all types of dementia.

Most treatment plans for dementia largely rely on sending the patients “home to live as well as they can with support from family or friends.”

Improve treatment plans for dementia

Limitations of the current approach for treating dementia, according to Astell, lie in the way we treat the syndromes. Dementia has vast implications on a patient’s everyday life, which cannot be easily treated through traditional health care approaches. 

“Individuals with dementia need practical interventions and supports to compensate for their cognitive challenges,” she wrote. “By leveraging their retained abilities and enabling them to maintain independence for as long as possible.” 

Improving the ways in which we treat dementia can induce widespread benefits throughout the health care sector. Current methods for treating dementia are putting unnecessary strain on our hospital systems.

“We are seeing, for example, growing numbers of people with dementia filling acute hospital beds, which is leading to cancellation of planned surgeries due to [a] lack of recovery beds,” Astell noted.

Changing dementia treatment methods could also better ensure that patients with different conditions than dementia get the help they need more quickly. 

The role of technology in dementia treatment

Fortunately, many novel innovations for treating dementia are becoming more accessible with the rising use of smart home devices and wearable technology.

Prototypes, such as the Gloucester Smart House, have been developed to help dementia patients in their everyday lives. It comes programmed with bathing and cooking monitors, an automatic night light, and prompts that remind users when to take their medication. 

Since its introduction, smart home technology has grown rapidly. Newer systems use artificial intelligence, machine learning, and sensor technology to reduce reliance on caregiving and help patients with tasks such as dressing and cooking.

Researchers are hoping to use the easily-installed technology to run wide-scale clinical trials to understand its potential benefits on those with dementia. 

Developments in Global Positioning System (GPS) applications on smartphones and motion-enabled gaming can also be used to help maintain patients’ social and active lifestyles. Many GPS applications on smartphones can now detect whether the user is lost.

Such a feature is especially useful for dementia patients, who may rely heavily on the app to navigate. Helping users walk safely makes it easier for them to maintain an active lifestyle.

Many motion-based games have also been tested to improve cognitive and physical stimulation in those with dementia. These games, which can be used on tablets and consoles like the Kinect or Nintendo Wii, also enable patients to spend their leisure time with others without having to leave their homes.

The upshot is that technology can help dementia patients manage their symptoms daily. According to Astell, accessible technology has the potential to play a huge role in this stage.

“Providing technology to assist individuals to monitor how they are doing would empower them to self-manage their condition,” she wrote. “This could be in the form of an app or device that they interact with throughout the day as their companion for living with dementia.”

“We need to develop new kinds of services to provide this support, with digitally-enabled staff.” 

Moving forward 

Improving accessibility to these technologies remains a major challenge. “We currently do not have one place that people can access to find out what is available and what other people are using,” wrote Astell.

To address this issue, her research team has launched their AcTo Dementia website, which provides dementia-friendly gaming apps that have been reviewed for their suitability for patients affected by the syndrome. 

Astell is currently working on a new online resource to guide users on how to use smart home and motion-based technology to manage dementia. 

Yet another issue in the implementation of these technologies lies in research. Unlike traditional big pharma research, most dementia studies do not involve dementia patients. 

“It has focused either on families of people with dementia (as proxies) or care providers to address their needs in relation to dementia,” wrote Astell. Putting more focus on understanding dementia patients directly could broaden the care that is available for them. 

Technology-based dementia treatments are rapidly evolving. But its limited accessibility and slow implementation are preventing them from reaching patients who need it. Our traditional approach to treating dementia must keep up with the pace of innovation.

Unfortunately, dementia patients do not have the luxury of time. “We have accessible, affordable technologies at our fingertips that can revolutionise how we approach dementia,” wrote Astell.

“[We can] improve the lives of people who receive a diagnosis… and provide something useful and beneficial in the face of no effective medical treatments [for dementia patients].”

UTSG: Rebecca Fannin on “Tech Titans of China”

Rebecca Fannin on “Tech Titans of China: How China’s Tech Sector is Challenging the World by Innovating Faster, Working Harder, and Going Global”

BOOK SYNOPSIS: The rise of China’s tech companies and intense competition from the sector is just beginning. This will present an ongoing management and strategy challenge for companies for many years to come. Tech Titans of China is the go-to-guide for companies (and those interested in competition from China) seeking to understand China’s grand tech ambitions, who the players are and what their strategy is. Fannin, an expert on China, is an internationally-recognized journalist, author and speaker. She hosts 12 live events annually for business leaders, venture capitalists, start-up founders, and others impacted by or interested in cashing in on the Chinese tech industry. In this illuminating book, she provides readers with the ammunition they need to prepare and compete. The book includes detailed profiles of the Chinese tech companies making waves, the tech sectors that matter most in China’s grab for super power status, and predictions for China’s tech dominance in just 10 years.

ABOUT OUR SPEAKER: Rebecca A. Fannin is a leading expert on global innovation. As a technology writer, author and media entrepreneur, she began her career as a journalist covering venture capital from Silicon Valley. Following the VC money, she became one of the first American journalists to write about China’s entrepreneurial boom, reporting from Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Today, Rebecca pens a weekly column for Forbes, and is a special correspondent for CNBC.com. Rebecca’s journalistic career has taken her to the world’s leading hubs of tech innovation, and her articles have appeared in Harvard Business Review, Fast Company and Inc., among others. Rebecca’s first book, Silicon Dragon: How China is Winning the Tech Race (McGraw-Hill 2008), profiled Jack Ma of Alibaba and Robin Li of Baidu, and she has followed these Chinese tech titans ever since. Her second book, Startup Asia (Wiley 2011), explored how India is the next up and comer, which again predicted a leading-edge trend. She also contributed the Asia chapter to a textbook, Innovation in Emerging Markets (Palgrave Macmillan 2016). Her new book, Tech Titans of China: How China’s Tech Sector is Challenging the World by Working Harder, Innovating Faster & Going Global, will be published by Hachette Book Group on September 2, 2019. Inspired by the entrepreneurs she met and interviewed in China, Rebecca became a media entrepreneur herself. In 2010, she formed media and events platform Silicon Dragon Ventures, which publishes a weekly e-newsletter, produces videos and podcasts, and programs and produces events annually in innovation hubs globally. Rebecca also frequently speaks at major business, tech and policy forums. She resides in New York City and San Francisco, and logs major frequent flier miles in her grassroots search to cover the next, new thing.

$24.95 plus HST per person (includes 1 paperback copy of “Tech Titans of China” and 1 seat for the book talk)

Enlightened minds, illuminated research

How the AGO’s art inspires researchers at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre

Enlightened minds, illuminated research

What does scientific discourse have to do with artistic expression? For a research team at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, the answer is “everything.”

We once thought of our right and left brains as separate forces responsible for logical and creative thought, respectively. But scientific progress has shown us otherwise, as mental processes require that the whole brain works together in harmony to approach a task.

Just as the corpus callosum brings our hemispheres together as a band of nerve fibres, so too should science and art harmonize — so believes Dr. Mathieu Lupien, a Senior Scientist at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. 

Lupien incorporates art into his professional sphere to generate creative discourse between his close-knit team of researchers. He offers a unique approach to team-building by inviting his team to take a stroll through the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Each team member takes the time to walk through and choose a piece of artwork that speaks to them. Lupien then has the team come together as a group to share their chosen piece and engage in dialogue about what inspired them.

“I get to see the world from their perspective and they get to see mine from theirs,” said Lupien in an interview with The Varsity. The process helps the researchers better understand how they see the world through different lenses.

Lupien expresses that this is an exercise in using something creative, like art, to share who we are as scientists. It gives the team a glimpse into each other’s worlds. For example, if a member really enjoys the intricate detail in a piece, we can understand that the fine details they reflect in their own work are something they value. This helps us interpret the work they do in a more meaningful way.

“Our imagination is the only way to explore the unknown,” said Lupien. “We are working in uncharted territory sometimes, so creating an environment that is conducive to open, creative thought is important for our work.”

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How can students integrate art and science into their own research methods?

Lupien describes that translating scientific works in an intelligible way is an art in itself. Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics can be highly complex areas, full of jargon which can be intimidating for many students interested in the field. Using creative expression is one way to translate complexities in an imaginative way.

He demonstrates this idea in his description of his research on epigenetics: the study of how the activity of our genes can change, without changing our DNA sequences. He describes the genome as six billion letters of DNA that form words that are different in nature. When they are organized into sentences, each of them tells a unique story.

In order to form specific parts of our body, such as muscle and brain tissue, we organize our genome, represented here as letters, in different ways to create distinct sentences. The folding process is guided by epigenetic events, or post-it notes, which highlight the regions of our genome that need to be read.

Perhaps we can say that art relates in the same way. Each stroke of the brush or strike of the pen creates a unique image, and the artist goes over certain areas of the painting with these tools to highlight parts of the piece. Sometimes this disrupts the image, which can create chaos. Other times, this enhances the image with clarity.

Like epigenetics, one must follow these fine lines or broad strokes to understand how the larger image, or genome, has come to be. Lupien emphasizes that fostering creative thought can open a world of possibilities for all walks of life. “Bringing these values into your everyday practice as a researcher can serve to nourish your approach to work,” he said.

Experiencing art can also serve as time for our ideas to incubate, perhaps creating a period of unconscious processing for approaching problems in research. Taking from the famous 1929 works of Graham Wallas, The Art of Thought, incubation allows us to process problems in a manner whereby no direct effort is exerted.

We can optimize the way we process pre-existing knowledge by exposing ourselves to creative mediums such as art. This may lead to new approaches in scientific work. Ultimately, generating a scientific discourse with the expression of art can bring forth creative magic that inspires research. 

“In research, there are two things of value — there is knowledge and creativity,” said Lupien.

“You need to have balance. Never shy away from engaging in creative thought. You never know where it will take you.”

Opinion: We don’t want this kind of Good Samaritan

Donation app to support homeless is divisive and cold

Opinion: We don’t want this kind of Good Samaritan

When was the last time you saw a homeless person panhandling? How did it make you feel? Guilty? Annoyed? Maybe just maybe you wanted to help, but weren’t sure how.

Well, much like food delivery and astrology, there’s an app for that. After witnessing a Black man panhandling, former tech employee Jonathan Kumar created Samaritan, a contemporary mechanism to help homeless individuals. Samaritan offers privileged passersby a way to help the homeless without needing to make eye-contact or use cash. Donations are even tax refundable.

Kumar’s program has two main goals: to provide urbanites with a convenient way to donate to homeless people in their area and to help homeless people develop closer connections with their community.

After two years of operation in the Seattle area, Kumar hopes to expand his enterprise. However, the Samaritan approach is not as good as it may appear and — despite homeless and social inequality crises in Toronto — it is absolutely not a solution worthy of import.

A seemingly straightforward system

Potential donors download the Samaritan app, which alerts them when they pass by a participating homeless person. The homeless participants are tagged with beacons that beam their photo, personal story, and financial need to the would-be Good Samaritan’s phone. In most photographs, program participants wear their beacons around their necks like crosses.

Givers can select the amount of money they would like to send and cue the transaction in a few swipes. The money is then sent to the beacon holders, who can redeem the donation at participating stores.  

While participation in the Samaritan program does not necessarily preclude the homeless from seeking other avenues of respite, it explicitly seeks to help sustain those left behind by mainstream sources of support.

While this may seem like a step forward, let’s take a closer look.

Despite Kumar’s lofty ambitions, the app itself is not particularly popular among the people it was purportedly designed to help.

In one telling interaction recorded in the Seattle Times, a Samaritan employee stood outside a temporary work placement agency, attempting to drum up interest in the beacons. One man, initially intrigued, looked at the demonstrative beacon the employee held. When he saw it, he asked, “It labels me as a hobo?”

Another reason for the program’s low participation rate is the requirements it imposes on homeless users. Not only are their choices and movement restricted, but beacon wearers must attend monthly meetings with Samaritan counsellors, otherwise they will lose access to the money on their account. The disciplinary tool swings between the collarbones of the wearer.

Gatekeepers to charity

Although Kumar has stated that Samaritan does not use institutional vetting processes for potential beacon recipients, he argues they seek out “those downtown that are truly struggling with homelessness and actively are trying to get themselves out.”

But how can they tell who is truly suffering, and moreover, who sets the definition?

Put simply, the donors determine who is allowed to avail of the service. Through the linkage of initial appearance and quick biographies with donations, participants must market themselves to their potential Samaritan. The appearances and backstories displayed on the app become weapons: a spade and a scalpel used to shape the kinds of people others want to give to.

Even if the donation is given, its very form creates other entanglements. The digital currency donated by Samaritans can only be used to buy “the essentials,” as determined by the developers who created the app and the stores willing to work with the program.

And if they do not have a cell phone or a data plan, beacon holders have no way of knowing who donated or in what amount. In order to check their own balance, they would have to find a participating store and inquire.

Siloing social classes

One might argue — and indeed, Kumar and his supporters do — that removing the cash component of roadside donations enables more spontaneous generosity, which in turn leads to more support for the homeless.

However, the giver  not the recipient  clearly benefits more from this cashlessness. It’s not just the removal of financial autonomy from the homeless person that is troubling either — reducing donations to a swipe sanitizes what should be uncomfortable.

Although some might insist that the app genuinely does help create connections, Samaritan actually works to further silo different social classes. Today’s Good Samaritans can give without looking up from their phones and feel better about themselves without actually encountering anyone. The app makes local suffering as distant as possible.

Moreover, valving compassionate impulses off through a quick dash of a digital credit card could reduce the likelihood of givers becoming more involved in long-term aid or advocacy efforts. After all, they have done their good deed of the day.

At the end of the day, Samaritan is a for-profit company, which makes donors pay up to 7.5 per cent of their total donation for the privilege of a painless transaction.

Contrary to many contemporary invocations, the parable of the Good Samaritan is not about financial generosity. In the biblical story, a man is robbed and left bleeding on the side of a busy road. Two travellers pass him by, but the third — a Samaritan — stops. He cleans the victim’s wounds, clothes him, feeds him, seats him on his donkey, and shares his room with him.

Fundamentally, it’s a story of human connection — of messy, visceral sharing between those left intact and those robbed. This is the spirit of giving we must foster. Look to the work of Eva’s Initiative for Homeless Youth, for example, which fulfils the short term needs of homeless youth in Toronto of housing and food while also offering training and emotional support.

Actions rooted in our fundamental closeness, not distance, are the only path toward resolving homelessness and social inequality in Toronto.

Bridging the technological divide in Canadian health care

Electronic Medical Records and patient care

Bridging the technological divide in Canadian health care

In Canada, a battle rages in health care. On one side stands a relatively stagnant health care system, already expensive but comparatively effective, with a legacy of poor technology integration. On the other side, investment in technology has the potential to not only reduce costs but also produce better patient care.  

Initially, further tech-focused investment would make health care even more expensive for the government. In Ontario alone, health care spending equates to 43.2 per cent of all provincial expenditures. Across Canada, health care amounts to about 11 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), or $4,919 per year per person, as of this year. As a percentage of our GDP, we have the fourth most expensive social health care system of 28 comparatively wealthy countries, falling short of only Switzerland, France, and Norway. However, our above-average spending nets above-average results.

Compared to other wealthy nations, Canadians experience an above-average quality and quantity of health care. Canada consistently ranks highly on the majority indices that measure efficacy, despite having fewer physicians, long wait-times, and less equipment. Canada is ranked first at preventing and reversing debilitating illness, and also boasts above average cancer survivorship rates, above average healthy-age expectancies at 73.2 years, and above-average life expectancies at 81.9 years. These accomplishments have been achieved with our existing low-tech system. For example, we are without a consistent system and centralized database for recording personal medical information or automatically communicating medical files, at times even at the same hospital.

The adoption of Electronic Medical Records

To learn more about Canada’s relationship to health care technology, I investigated Canada’s partial adoption of Electronic Medical Records (EMRs). I spoke with Dr. Muhammad Mamdani, Director of the Li Ka Shing Centre for Healthcare Analytics Research and Training at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto; corresponded with Christina Christodoulakis, a PhD candidate in computer science at the University of Toronto; and interviewed Davey Hamada, a registered nurse in British Columbia.

According to Mamdani, “there seems to be a general consensus that the adoption of tech [into health care] is a good thing.” Christodoulakis’ U of T-based research reflects this: she found that in Canada, about seven per cent of tests are ordered because practitioners are unaware of already relevant results. A central database of EMRs that is used and updated consistently would solve this problem. The benefits of EMRs include improved speed of finding records, prevention of handwriting illegibility, aid in the early identification of diseases, assistance in targeting services based on risk, help with long-term monitoring of patients, and improved immunization consistency.

Hospitals and smaller family practices have been slowly and irregularly integrating EMRs for the past 30 years. Most of these earlier databases were designed by software engineers with little input from medical professionals. This meant that their software was not functional for practitioners — sometimes queries were too rigid or irrelevant information was readily displayed while critical information was hard to find. According to Christodoulakis, “some physicians reported that they sometimes stop using EMRs because hunting for menus and buttons disrupts the clinical encounter and hinders doctor-patient interaction.”

At present, software packages from different manufacturers seldom work together. Mamdani explained that “often patient records have to be printed out and delivered by mail.” This slows down the treatment process and further clogs the system. This lack of electronic communication also exists within institutions, where medical professionals print records for hand delivery. The poor integration of software and communication often opens the door for third-party organizations to perform patchwork to mend discontinuous records together, as is the case with Alberta Netcare and ConnectingOntario. But it is important to note that privatizing health care record management can carry serious consequences for patients and the health care system as a whole.

Though records are currently scattered among hard copies and various software, it is possible to unite the system. As Christodoulakis’ research notes, adopting or changing EMR systems requires “training, maintenance, IT support, system upgrade and data storage, governance and migration costs,” often too expensive a barrier for small and medium-sized institutions. Based on an estimate from 2010, the financial cost equates to $10 billion. But integration of an efficient database of medical records is just the tip of the iceberg.

Addressing the divide

According to Hamada, “health care providers have been in many ways slow to adapt to the technological boom.” He explained, “This is in part due to our education, which is lacking in any content regarding technological innovation and also the lack of foresight in the institutions that we work for.” Hamada’s workplace has not adopted EMRs, seldom uses software beyond email, and the state-of-the-art equipment he uses runs on an operating system that has not been supported since 2014.

For Hamada, adapting to changing tech is easy. But at his workplace, a recent change in the process of ordering porter services, or facility managers, continues to confuse many despite having support hotlines available throughout their upgrade. Mamdani and Christodoulakis both confirmed that some health care professionals are resistant to the technology making its debut in the health care system.

This is in part because people dislike change and re-learning concepts, but also due to a lack of transparency in data use. Hamada reports that at his workplace, data is collected but its use is a mystery. “In order for nurses to see data as a positive thing, there needs to be greater transparency and involvement around changes made based on evidence,” he said.

Mamdani, a renowned leader in health care, has emphasized facilitating communication between disciplines throughout his career. He integrates tech, economics, and data science into his team, and advocates for strong leaders to continue to bridge the technological gap. He believes that this systemic divide will continue to exist until teams learn to find a common language and talk to each other.

Mamdani’s team includes a few data scientists who work closely with health care professionals to build a data-friendly culture. Their research has been able to predict, with 80 per cent accuracy, the length of patient stays. Data science facilitates communication with the whole team and allows a more unified progression for the patient’s care. His team has also been able to predict trends in staffing, which saves approximately $200 million for St. Michael’s Hospital and could save up to $800 million for others.

Technological change, along with all of its benefits, comes with a very real cost. In Hamada’s workplace, the technology remains in the shadows because qualified health care professionals excel at what they are best at — taking care of people. The numbers show that Canadian health care is effective, even without consistent EMRs or databases that communicate. The cost of tech disturbs that status quo. But a centralized database would likely reduce redundancies in health care and improve efficiency. Advanced analytics has the strong potential to push our health care system to better look after us, especially as our population ages.

Improving outcomes and better integrating the health care system into the digital world is an important pursuit — but it must be checked with an emphasis on people and care over all else. In an ideal application, technology would and should improve our ability to take care of one another.

The Varsity has reached out to Campus Health Services, which declined the interview request, as well as the Gerstein Crisis Centre.