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The sword or the shield: what weapon to use? Lessons from Porto, London and São Paolo on COVID19-apps

As the current pandemic progresses, different digital tools are popping up around the world to contain the spread of the corona virus. Through a series of interviews, this blog highlights several COVID-19 apps, currently in use by CC4DR city-members. The cities of Porto, London and São Paolo highlight different challenges and opportunities when introducing apps as one of many tools to combat Covid-19.


In Porto, the primary goal of the Covid-19 app is to track the contacts that were made by the users of the app. The approach concerning contact tracing apps was met with considerable criticism. The sentiment was that it doesn’t work if the minimum threshold of people using the app wasn’t met. In Porto, only a small percentage of people actually installed the app on their phone. An efficient solution would be to make the app mandatory for citizens to install, but this would heavily infringe on their digital rights and would surely be met with significant resistance. This is not unique to Porto. In the Netherlands there was national debate about digital rights and the infringement of corona apps on these rights. This discussion provided resistance to the creation of a contact tracing app. One could even argue that it is unsure whether there could even be a passive contact tracing app that doesn’t infringe on digital rights.

While not everyone was on board with the implementation of a contact-tracing app, The city of Porto found that the app might fail to protect the population from the effects of Covid-19 in another critical way. The most vulnerable group are the elderly, a group who has been hit by high death tolls, but also by increasing mental health problems due to isolation and loneliness. In Porto, only 30% of the elderly population owns a smartphone. Even if the government would supply the remaining 70% with a smartphone for the express purpose of tracking their movements, these elderly probability with not use it.

Instead of tracking people’s movements, the focus should be on educating people on why the corona measures are necessary in the first place. If people don’t see the intrinsic value of following the rules, the rules won’t have the desired effect. If, however, people are intrinsically motivated through information on the importance of the measures, they are more likely to self-regulate. They will be much more open to the idea of using a mobile application. The contact tracing app could be useful in making it easier to map with who a given person has been in contact with, but right now it is easily perceived as a tool meant for surveillance rather than a tool meant for convenience and protection. Colleagues from the City of Porto found, that if the attitude of citizens on corona measures and regulations was different, the latter situation could be achieved. Ensuring mutual trust and establishing intrinsic motivation are what could make such tools worthwhile introducing.


In London, we can observe an app that might be in line with the situation that was proposed in our interview with Porto. The Kings College reporting app was developed independently from the government by the titular Kings College. Instead of contact tracing, this application is dependent on active and voluntary input by its users. They provide the app with (daily) health updates and whether or not they have had a corona test done. Using this data, the app creates “heat maps” that describe the intensity and location of potential corona spreading events. As stated, the Kings

College app is not created by the UK government. However, the collected data is shared with the UK National Health Services (NHS). This way, the app aids in increasing local responsiveness pertaining to containing the spread of the pandemic. This is an interesting example of obtaining the outputs that institutions want to obtain through the use of contact tracing applications, without actually needing to use a contact tracing app.

In addition to the Kings college app, the UK government announced the development of their own contact-tracing app in early April. The app will be implemented through the NHS’s technology and research arm, NHSX. The NHS COVID-19 app is planned for release in the winter of 2020. Initially, the UK government took a centralized approach to the development of the app. A preliminary field trial revealed a number of technical problems that need to be addressed before release. To realize this, the UK government decided to switch to a decentralized approach, where they will cooperate with Google and Apple to design the final version of the app. This app is not a priority for the Government at the moment.


Finally, in São Paulo apps in the context of the COVID19 pandemic are used in different ways. The SP156 app represents a substitute for face-to-face city hall services, now that gathering at the city hall is no longer possible. The SP156 app helps when contact with emergency services are needed. The app enables direct contact with specialised assistance entities, such as the police station for persons with disabilities, women’s call centers, human rights centres and utility services, such as customer's service and social security. A feature especially for citizens with hearing impairments enables these citizens to be informed on updates concerning the coronavirus. The app unifies a wide range of useful services into a singular platform. It is used to inform, support and facilitate citizens in times of need, but also to make sure that municipal services can continue to be used as normal. It could be argued that this kind of app is at least as necessary as a contact-tracing or reporting app.


The City of Porto gives compelling reasons for why the implementation of a contact tracing app alone would be difficult. In this case, the most vulnerable group, namely the elderly, is also the group with the lowest average amount of digital literacy. London and São Paolo both showed interesting alternatives to add value to the fight against Covid. In addition, we would reiterate that digital tools are only as powerful as their wielder. This is why we are of the opinion that a significant part of the efforts should be aimed towards educating the population in effective digital tool usage, if we are to reap its benefits. Equally important, the use of digital tools should spark dialogue on what adds value to society and what norms are supported by society. The COVID19 pandemic prioritizes local public debates on digital rights. With a skilled wielder, digital tools can be a formidable shield against Covid-19.


Authors: Sanjay Ghosh & Claire Leijs.

Amsterdam, 2020.

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