As cities around the world try to cope effectively with the COVID-19 crisis, we are witnessing a wide variety of digital technology responses. Mobile phones, social media, and artificial intelligence can play a substantial role in dealing with the COVID-19 spread. This includes the development of contact tracing apps and the use of big data to analyse people’s movements. For example, mobility data from Deutsche Telecom is being used to estimate the degree to which the German population is complying with requests to stay at home. In Singapore, the TraceTogether app uses bluetooth to enable the health ministry to identify people who have been in close contact with infected individuals.
Many of these kinds of solutions can be positive and help policy makers respond quickly and appropriately. They make it possible to monitor, anticipate the spreading of the disease and support mitigation. While the use of these applications might be effective in the short term, there may be a fine line between hurried implementation of new technologies in times of crisis and negative long-term impact on digital rights. How to adequately balance values of privacy and autonomy with values of safety and security?
In this blog we will highlight the role that digital rights should play in COVID-19 responses with a special focus on pragmatic examples with a privacy-first and inclusive tech approach:
Social Innovation over Technological Innovation
Since the internet was created, the world has seen an increase in connection. Places and people that used to be half a world away were suddenly at the palm of your hand. Technology has brought us closer together, but in some ways this led to the environment that we are in now, where that very connection has forced us to disconnect instead and create distance once again.
When the debate floor opens about the topic of COVID-19 people speak with their hearts as much as with their minds. However, this energy must be channeled the right way. To stay safe, to move past this, is to create an effective system by which local authorities can monitor health. The restrictions that all of us are bound by may be relaxed and the ability to safeguard one's health may be increased. In such dire situations, it’s easy to gloss over important ethical concerns relating to privacy under the guise of serving the public interest, but it’s important to not sacrifice our long term rights for a short term solution.
Privacy is one of our human rights, inalienable and non-negotiable in a democracy, and any decisions we make now will resonate for far longer than the COVID-19 virus will. Though the situation we are in provides a unique context, laws aren’t as context specific as we would like in this situation. This presents us with the risk that we pass regulations now that later on may be used for purposes more nefarious than battling a global pandemic. It is therefore especially prudent to create an open space where the debate about how to combine personal privacy and public health can exist. Combining differs from finding a balance as the common belief holds, given that these two concepts are not necessarily inversely related or exclusionary, but rather complement each other. With careful consideration, it is possible to improve on both of these concepts in tandem.
To engage in meaningful discourse about the way we approach the issue at hand, it is first important to define more specifically what principles we must seek to uphold with regards to digital rights. For this, we formulated 10 principles we think are of utmost importance when employing Digital Technologies in the light of COVID19.
Uphold fundamental rights while supporting local communities
The right to a private life must be upheld. This means that any use of personal health data, geo-location data or other personal forms of data must be limited, supervised and temporary. Under these conditions, the use of emergency measures can be created.
How do cities ensure a social and humane focus of technology-use in their communities?
The question that remains is how can cities use technology as an enabler to face the current COVID-19 pandemic with citizens’ digital rights at the center of their design and application. In order to shed some light on this issue, we hereby present the following examples:
- Action plan for Digital Rights x Corona - City of Amsterdam
Some of the measures by the city aim to explore how to support the move of the arts and creative industry to online, monitor the impact of cyber activity to our digital safety and a monitor on the stability and resilience of the internet in Amsterdam. Risks in supply chains for public safety have been mapped. The Corona data exchange started to support the Corona-crisis team with data-gathering and analyses to measure the impact of measures, for example on mobility. Research and development on which tech can be used to ease the lockdown-process has started to ‘Unlock Amsterdam’.
‘Digital Rights x Corona’, an action plan for the watchdog role to protect Digital Rights for tech and policies used in measures around Corona has been established rapidly after measures were taken in the Netherlands. The team investigates which measures potentially conflict with digital rights, works on alternatives (in example alternative sensors instead of rapidly deploying camera’s) and will support with scenarios and actions for Unlock Amsterdam.
Links: Public overview of measures in Amsterdam: www.amsterdam.nl/digitalesta; Action plan Digital Rights x Corona will appear on: https://www.amsterdam.nl/en/coronavirus/overview/
- COVID-19 extension of Telecare Service and VinclesBCN App - City of Barcelona, Spain
The City Hall of Barcelona has opted for the extension of Telecare which has almost 90,000 users and the Radars programme (1,600 users) that monitors people living alone with the collaboration of the neighbourhood network as well as an extension of VinclesBCN App service (2,400 users) that monitors elderly people and has also created a health channel to address the doubts that these people have.
Links: https://ajuntament.barcelona.cat/personesgrans/es/canal/teleassistencia; https://ajuntament.barcelona.cat/vinclesbcn/es/conoce-las-aplicaciones-0
- Human Communication and Transparency vs. COVID-19 - City of Bratislava, Slovakia
The City of Bratislava identified transparency and human communication as a success factor to navigate these challenging times. Consequently, the Mayor of Bratislava commissioned a famous local cartoonist to draw posters to inform citizens about the necessary measures to fight the coronavirus outbreak in a clear and simple fashion. These posters, made available both online and throughout the city, have been also created in English and the city hall is enthusiastic to share an adaptable version with interested municipalities. Moreover, Slovakian IT communities are collaborating with information dissemination and emotions curbing, with initiatives like “covid.chat” a free chatbot.
- Data-driven prediction and Citizen Engagement Techniques - City of Helsinki, Finland
Mikko Russama, CDO of the city of Helsinki, provided a video intervention focused on the three dimensions of the crisis: health, social and economic crisis. He stressed the value of effective preparation, data driven tracking and citizen engagement techniques. The Helsinki’s crisis management model has a task force divided into different areas and making predictive analysis. The need for having the right data was emphasized as key.
- Connecting the elderly: Digital helpline & prepopulated tablets - City of New York, US
The mayor of NYC announced a new program which entails the distribution of tablets to vulnerable and disconnected communities, such as seniors in specific underserved areas of the city. The city has partnered with T-Mobile, to provide them with pre-populated tablets with apps which might be useful for them and a service telephone line for assistance and usage guidance. Seniors get to keep the tablet afterwards.
- PEPP-PT & DP-3T: COVID-19 related technologies - Pan-European Initiatives
Europe is developing its own technology, such as the Pan-European Privacy Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) or the recently created DP-3T, which in the event of infection, allows you to keep track of the contacts you have had in recent days, while respecting the privacy of both those who have tested positive and their contacts. Recently, the European Commission has launched a set of guidelines and recommendations about the use of these contact tracing apps.
- COVID-19 Open Data Hub & Digital Inclusion Partnerships - City of San Antonio, US
The City of San Antonio (Texas) has developed an open data hub for citizens and interested stakeholders to access updated statistical information on COVID-19 on a daily basis. The hub site enables citizens to download these data sets and APIs while exploring useful links to COVID-19 applications and maps. These applications and dashboards provide HIPAA-compliant, county-wide information about testing, hospital capacity, and case data, in addition to key health and capacity metrics the City and local health authority are tracking as Texas begins to reopen. In one week, over 3 million hits were recorded on the public CoVID-19 dashboards, with an average number of 450,920.86 visits per day. The Open Data Hub Site received nearly 20,000 visits two weeks after deployment, averaging over 1.5K visits daily.
A Digital Inclusion taskforce with over 100 members, including 50 agencies and organizations, as well as local school districts, was formed to coordinate digital inclusion efforts during the pandemic. The taskforce has created a digital inclusion resources and needs tool, and a list of service providers for connectivity and literacy. San Antonio’s geographic digital divide was made particularly evident when the city mapped participation rates of an online self-screening COVID-19 tool. The tool made recommendations to residents for testing based on a series of questions regarding their symptoms. To address participation rates that were lower in areas that lacked internet connectivity, the City responded with a taskforce that provided critical health information to disconnected residents on a door to door basis. To further address the digital divide, San Antonio has also partnered with local transportation authority VIA on the program VIACares, which provides free Wi-Fi to underserved areas with otherwise underutilized vans during the pandemic.
Links: https://cosacovid-cosagis.hub.arcgis.com/ ; https://www.viainfo.net/cares/ ; https://cosagis.maps.arcgis.com/apps/MapSeries/index.html?appid=9cdb2a0222ff4b4fb81b1452fd9d15fa
- The “Solidarity City Action” & CIL’s COVID-19 App extension: A network of public and civil solidarity - City of São Paulo, Brazil
The City Hall of Sao Paulo has collaborated with several civil organizations to create the “solidarity city action”, a volunteering platform for donations to help the city’s most vulnerable population. The website provides citizens with information on where the eight drive-thru points are located and the type of expected donations (from staple food to hygiene products). The page will also include an interactive map next to ongoing actions and figures. Additionally, Sign Language Intermediation Center (CIL) launches new service guidance on COVID-19. Sao Paulo City Hall's mobile app brings information about the coronavirus for people with hearing impairment. By accessing a specific icon and making the call, the interpreter will know that it is a request about COVID-19. In addition to the COVID-19 guidance option, the app has other services: emergencies, security and utility services. Besides meeting the demand from the deaf community, it also focuses on municipal public servants, who will be able to download the app on their smartphones and use it when they have to assist a citizen who only communicates in sign language.
- Open & free courses on e-commerce for SMEs - City of Zaragoza, Spain
Zaragoza’s City Hall and Chamber of Commerce have made available free online courses for SMEs to be able to offer their services and products digitally to citizens. These include Digital Marketing, Advertising on the Internet, Web Analytics and Social Networks in Retail. All are aimed to empower local commerce with the skills necessary for their digital transformation so that no SMEs are left behind.
Link: https://www.camarazaragoza.com/empresa-en-marcha/; https://www.camarazaragoza.com/productos/curso-de-comercio-electronico-nuevas-oportunidades-para-el-comercio/;
Do you also have an example of COVID-19 responses and digital rights you would like to share with us?
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