20: Thinking at the Systems Level, with Brian Krohn, SafeDistance.org
When faced with a systemic problem, Brian Krohn thinks at the systems level.
Systems resist change, whether we are talking about systemic racism, institutional policies, or a global pandemic. To meet systemic challenges, you must think at the systems level.
Brian Krohn has spent his career changing stubborn systems.
It’s 3 AM on March 10, 2020. Brian is frantically sketching on a giant whiteboard in his basement workshop. The COVID-19 pandemic has landed on the US coasts. Misinformation is everywhere, and no one seems to be doing anything. No one seems to understand the scale of what is coming. Brian has an idea that might help. But can an idea spread faster than a virus?
The idea was simple.
“The only effective tools we have to fight COVID-19 are testing, contact tracing, and social distancing, Brian says. “There were several problems. The US fumbled its testing program. Contact tracing requires an invasion of privacy that Americans won’t tolerate. Social distancing and quarantine can only be effectively implemented on a massive scale, such as a state shutdown.”
Brian’s idea? Build a way for users to share their symptoms anonymously at the neighborhood level.
“The neighborhood, or census block group, is big enough to maintain privacy. Yet, it’s small enough that individuals and communities can act.”
The goal was for people to see what was going on in their neighborhood. They would get clear personalized social distancing recommendations. This would allow them to contain COVID-19 without giving up civil liberties.
But for this idea to work, it would require:
1. Institutional backing from trusted institutions and people (hospitals and universities), and
2. Widespread adoption from users to participate.
How though could one guy in his basement at 3 AM muster that kind of support?
He started texting everyone he knew. Before dawn, he had connected with friends at the University of Minnesota. He found collaborators at the HealthPartners Institute, the research arm of HealthPartners. HealthPartners is the largest healthcare provider in Minnesota.
But then, they ran into a series of bureaucratic hurdles.
“Our collaborators at the University of Minnesota were great,” he explains, “but, because of the COVID-19 crisis, key decision-makers were swamped. HealthPartners stepped up and supported this innovative idea.”
With institutional approval, Brian and a small team built an app to trace the pandemic at the neighborhood level. They submitted it to the big tech companies. Nothing. They were blocked.
“First, they didn’t believe HealthPartners was a health organization. Then, they sat on it for ten days so that they could launch their COVID symptom recommender. We thought we were dead at that point. However, their system still didn’t help users and communities to take action, so we pushed forward.”
As of today, SafeDistance.org has launched a Web App. They have an iOS app. However, the Android app is still not available.
“We have growing grassroots support from doctors and neighbors. We are in this for the long haul. COVID-19 is not going away any time soon. The Spanish flu took two full years and three waves of deaths to conclude. We are going to need ways to come together and to look out for each other. Otherwise, the self-inflicted damage may be greater than the damage from the virus.”
Learn More Brian Krohn and SafeDistance.org:
Modern Logic: https://modernlogic.io/
HealthPartners Institute: https://www.healthpartners.com/institute/
Brian Krohn on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/brian-krohn/