Design and deployment of COVID-19 technology responses and finding ways to make things

February 09, 2021

As governments try to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, many are turning to contact tracing, including apps that track your location and electronic check-in QR codes. But with that technology come questions of personal safety, privacy, trust, control and collective action. So what can be done to improve these large-scale technological system roll-outs without infringing on a citizen's right to privacy?

"These systems are logging your physical social network," said Katina Michael, an Arizona State University professor at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society in the College of Global Futures and the School of Computing, Informatics and Decision Systems Engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. "The physical has become more important than the virtual. It's powerful information, and that data is really sensitive."

Michael is an expert in public interest technology. She has been researching location-based services since before the SARS pandemic outbreak in 2003 when she was working for a global internetworking vendor. She will share the challenges of deploying these types of services and ways to improve them at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

"I'm looking at COVID-19 technology responses that are targeted at the reduction of the transmission of the pandemic," said Michael. "What are the sociotechnical considerations that might impact the adoption of new technologies? Which countries have been able to manage the pandemic better and why? Is it the technological response that has caused the reduction in transmission and kept the number of cases relatively low, or a more holistic coordination effort that is at play, where local user values are considered in the design of a system?"

There are several challenges to COVID-19 mobile technological responses. Apps need to be downloaded and updated. There are different types of cell phones, and some don't have the latest onboard sensors. Some people share phones or don't have one at all. Electronic check-ins require voluntary participation. And even if all this data is collected, who owns it? The government, private companies or third-party data brokers offering "check-in as a service?" What can they do with that data, and can we trust them to act in the public's interest?

"The only way these systems can be successful is if we engage users early in the design of a service and act together toward a common goal. Major stakeholders must come together in public-private partnerships. This includes government agencies engaged in digital transformation for social securitization of its populace, private companies with expertise in service delivery, and citizens who will ultimately use these systems. Inclusive of this participatory element are specialist NGOs and NfPs invited into the consultative process and given a voice at the table. In the end, it's all about trust. We've had a breakdown in society in that thread that holds people together, and that takes a long time to rebuild."

Despite the challenges, when implemented correctly and responsibly, these systems can provide insight into where the virus is spreading and track down people who may have been exposed. But more people need to be involved in their creation and implementation. Working toward a common goal takes coordination and listening. Everyone needs to share in the responsibility to find a solution.

"We have to change the technological development model and move toward the needs of the public interest. Sociotechnical systems will be successful if the public is engaged and participating in decisions about those systems. The more we engage the everyday citizen in the early phases of development, the greater our success in fighting these big pandemics."

Michael will present "Transnational COVID-19 Cases and Background: Mobile Technology Implementations" during the session "The Impacts of Mobile Technology and Regulation in a Pandemic" on February 9 at noon MST.
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Arizona State University

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