How the “Silicon Mountain” Handles Quarantine

On Tuesday evening, when Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan addressed the nation to announce stricter lockdown measures, he urged people to stay home and do their banking, utility and grocery payments online instead. After a short pause, he added, “For those who don’t know how to use these online resources, now would be a good time to learn.” 

Aside from the global spread of the coronavirus, the looming economic challenges and the quarantines, I couldn’t help but think “Wow, what a great time to be alive.” I can sit on my couch in my underwear and order my khash delivered to my door by a man in a hazmat suit from my smartphone. But of course, that’s really a staple of life in one of the world’s emerging tech hubs.

They say necessity is the mother of invention. While everyone around the world has been binge watching Netflix, sharing daily #quarantinelife updates on Instagram that no one asked for or spreading conspiracy theories on Facebook, Armenians in all their inventiveness are making creative uses of technology to beat boredom and make life easier. Here are some observations in no particular order:

The Quarantine Soundtrack:

Even before the official shutdown order on all non-essential businesses came into effect, Armenia’s restaurants, bars and nightclubs had been suffering. With the quarantine now more or less in place, Armenia’s nightlife scene has also come online.

Cheer up! You can now enjoy beats from some of Armenia’s best DJs from the safety of your alpine redoubt in these nightly live streams. For those who aren’t into the latest EDM tracks, the Armenian Symphonic Opera’s performance are also available in full on Facebook.

 

Tech to the Rescue 

One of Armenia’s emerging tech success stories, Krisp, which uses innovative machine learning technology to mute background noise during video conferencing and thus provides higher call quality, has made their product easier to use than ever. Conscious of the ever-increasing reliance on VoIP conferencing as the coronavirus pushes more companies to remote work, the SaaS (that’s Software as a Service for you normies) provider now offers its service for free for six months. Current paying subscribers will receive a 30-percent reduction on their monthly subscription fee. Students are apparently also being offered free memberships to help them follow up with online classes.

Speaking of online learning, Armenia is leading the way there too. The made-in-Armenia online distance learning application—aptly named Dasaran—has received some international notice and praise for making ‘uninterrupted learning’ possible for high school and university students across all of Armenia’s public education institutions. The application is even being adopted by education systems beyond Armenia’s borders.

Peter Mikkelsen, a Danish expat in Yerevan and blockchain specialist, and his Armenian team are collaborating with Aryze ambassador Artur Aloyan, YSMU students’ union, zap.org, Nick Spanos and the Copenhagen Tech community to provide a blockchain-based solution to facilitate tracking, verifying and distributing of vital medical supplies such as masks and ventilators where they’re needed most to fight the epidemic. The product, which is coded on top of a hyperledger fabric, should be ready for beta testing as early as next week, according to Peter.

Then of course there is Mutable, an edge computing startup with a development team in Yerevan (where I also work). Mutable is pushing forward with deploying a public edge cloud solution, in other words, the sort of localized cloud-based computing to process the massive surge in data traffic caused by everyone being on the internet at once on the last mile. So, rather than your Fortnite marathon or Netflix-binge being processed by massive data centers 500 miles away, Mutable is part of a larger effort to bring that closer to you. This means better streaming quality and less stress on an overburdened global telecommunications network. 

As if that weren’t enough, even the millennia-old Armenian Apostolic Church has finally joined the internet age, streaming sunday services online for the faithful in an effort to keep them from congregating in person and risk infection.

The Apps

The online alternatives which Pashinyan alluded to on Tuesday night are the ride hailing services, grocery list sites, online banking apps and meal delivery platforms that a month ago made life in Armenia so much more convenient, but today literally sustain life in quarantine. The government banned all non-essential workers. Well, now we know that the GG taxi drivers, Menu.am, Buy.am 4u.am or Sovats.am couriers and others are essential. Be sure to tip them well (through the app of course, for sanitary reasons you see).

Even the government had finally reached the 21st century and discovered Twitter as a good method of sharing important information and updates. Of course, since most Armenians haven’t yet discovered the microblogging platform either, emergency and health services are using SMS to deliver timely updates to the population. As already mentioned, the PM and Health Minister, both known for their tech-Savvy leadership styles, are also making regular Facebook Live broadcasts to inform the public on the ongoing crisis. 

Then there are those who are opting for non-tech ways of keeping moods up, like my neighbor who thinks he’s helping by playing saxophone from his balcony. He’s like our very own Charlie Parker, if Charlie Parker were white and completely tone deaf. On second thought, maybe we should stick to the tech.

Author’s note (03/30/2020): Since this article went to press, there have been announcements of various other tech-driven initiatives to help the Armenian health authorities deal with the COVID-19 crisis underway. We will be following those developments as well.

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Raffi Elliott

Columnist & Armenia Correspondent
Raffi Elliott is a Canadian-Armenian political risk analyst and journalist based in Yerevan, Armenia. As correspondent and columnist for the Armenian Weekly, he covers socioeconomic, political, business and diplomatic issues in Armenia, with occasional thoughts on culture and urbanism.

1 Comment

  1. Beautifully written and, so informative.
    “One of Armenia’s emerging tech success stories, Krisp, which uses innovative machine learning technology to mute background noise during video conferencing…” Wow! Bravo!
    Reminds me of Venetian Mkhitarian Father Ghevont Alishan’s Poem: Where are you Armenian talent?”Ո՞ւր ես հայ հանճար.— անցե՜ր ես, անցեր…” We should say now “Վերադառց ել ես, բարով եկար…”

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