Author: Stefania

[BigDataSur-COVID] Making the virus visible with (responsible) mobile data

Technologies to track COVID-19 spread with data generated by mobile devices bring the discussion about responsible use of data to a global level, creating an opportunity to push for regulatory frameworks.

 

by Peter Füssy

 

Although the Covid-19 outbreak is known since December, the first images of the virus were published in late January and more detailed captures came only in mid-February. The reason for this is that the majority of viruses are much smaller than a bacteria and cannot be seen with an ordinary light microscope, only with a more sophisticated and expensive electron microscope.

Another method to make the virus visible is by following the hosts, or rather, the “smart” devices carried by the hosts everywhere. These devices display and generate data, which have been mostly used by corporations to predict and steer human behavior for profit. The same data repurposed can be used to see the movement of the disease at different levels, from populations to individuals, but not without generating other risks to the hosts.

These visualizations are not accurate pictures of the virus, but probabilities converted into coloured areas, dots or maps overlaid with statistics. However, they are powerful tools to support decision-making in medical practices and health policies. In addition, these infographics can create high scale awareness when available to a broader audience: they can show how far the virus is from you, sometimes with staggering precision.

Photo: Transmission electron microscope image of the virus that causes Covid-19 (NIAID-RML/Creative Commons)

Tracking the virus (and people)

In China, for instance, the two largest telecom operators, covering 80% of the market, provided data about the number of mobile phones travelling from Wuhan to other regions before the lockdown. The data was used to estimate a better latent infection ratio (transmission before symptoms) in the pandemic epicenter, and can be visualized in an infographic from The New York Times.

Private mobile carriers are also sharing data with health authorities in countries like Italy, Germany, Austria and Brazil to monitor social distancing measures and detect people agglomerations. In those cases, the visual representation shows concentrations and movements of large groups. Examples that handle much more personal data are not difficult to find though – and are even seen as models to limit the virus spreading.

In Pakistan, some residents of Karachi received text messages saying that they may have come in contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19. According to local reports, authorities are using call detail records (CDRs) from telecom operators to find phone numbers that were recently near a phone owned by someone infected. In Australia, the police said the “threshold” that legitimizes phone tracking of specific individuals – a practice usually restricted to criminal investigations – have been met in the case of a Chinese couple who allegedly carried the virus from Wuhan to Adelaide.

Photo: Map produced by the Hong Kong Government showing the buildings where possible cases of Covid-19 lived for the past 14 days.

In Taiwan, people under mandatory quarantine are “geofenced” in real-time by their cell phone signal – they cannot even let the battery die risking to have police officers knocking on the door. In the same direction, Hong Kong created a map of the city where you can see in which buildings the virus have been spotted along with the infected person’s gender and age. In those cases, each SIM card represents a human being who is a possible host for the virus.

The list of states adopting digital surveillance methods to picture where the virus is could continue for several paragraphs. Those methods for visualizing the virus are shaping actions to “flatten the curve”, controlling citizens in quarantine, detecting social distancing levels and performing contact tracing.

As the emergency of the situation calls for, the arrangements for the data sharing are done fast and, in most cases, with lack of transparency for users and public, which raises questions about future consequences on privacy and freedom. To prevent that, researchers, activists, institutions and NGOs have been building on past experiences to come up with guidelines for responsible practices.

Data sharing and epidemics

The role of visualizations during pandemics have grown in importance since British physician John Snow plotted fatal cholera cases into a map of London’s Soho in 1854 and assumed the source of the disease were the water pumps. During the twentieth century, the introduction of computer-assisted analysis and development of tools for visualizations further increased the reliance on data and graphics to prevent and control infections. More recently, the popularization of mobile phones allowed a new range of possibilities to predict or track the spread of diseases.

Photo: John Snow’s map of cholera in London (Public domain)

Given the sensitive and commercially valuable data that cell phones generate, including call and location history through triangulation of cell towers position, mobile operators are generally reluctant to share this information. Nevertheless, exceptions have been made in research and humanitarian responses during outbreaks of dengue, cholera, malaria and ebola in low- and middle-income countries at the beginning of the decade.

Similarly to the current COVID-19 crisis, in those cases, the perceived benefits from the data sharing have overshadowed potential risks, uncovering an optimistic perspective of technological solutions. As McDonald argues, the push for experimenting with mobile data for contact tracing in Liberia overlooked data protection laws, undermined the coordination ability of local actors and raised tensions with the government, resulting in “big data disaster”.

Potential risks

From the medical viewpoint, call detail records (CDRs) and contact tracing can be somehow helpful to control the virus, but data alone does not solve anything and after shared data do not disappear with the virus, putting in risk privacy and human rights. Even when the data is aggregated and anonymized, researchers have demonstrated that four points (e.g., home address, workplace address, or geo-localized tweets or pictures) are enough to identify 95% of the individuals. If used to political interest, it is possible to track separatists, migrants or dissidents.

Personal data sharing puts in evidence not only the disease but the private life of the host. For corporations, sharing data is not only a matter of doing public good but a decision that is based also on economic and strategic issues. Once data is out, it can be misused by other companies, for instance, private health insurance can determine or deny coverage combining different datasets. This is why we need ethical sharing of data to protect citizens from unintended outcomes of well-meaning initiatives.

In this direction, the Responsible Data community is one of those groups trying to draw a global framework that includes social, legal, privacy and economical-related issues. According to the collective, projects that involve data sharing should consider power dynamics (how the least powerful actors are affected?), have a strong justification, care not just about speed, include diverse perspectives and re-evaluations to understand possible harms and create checks and balances to alert for unexpected effects.

Global opportunity

So far, economic interests, political contexts, local legislations and cultural differences have been a challenge to implement responsible guidelines for data sharing. As a global issue, the COVID-19 crisis could be an opportunity to pressure for regulatory frameworks. In this regard, more groups have come forward with suggestions for technical and social evaluations of actions to track the virus.

The EU Commission recommended a coordinated approach for the use of tracing apps which includes an intermediary (the Joint Research Centre) for processing and storing data from European mobile operators as long as the COVID-19 crisis is ongoing. In addition, the institution that represents the interest of mobile operators worldwide (GSMA) released a privacy guide to deal with data requests. The document recommends operators to proactively implement best practices, encompassing transparency to the public, the prohibition of re-identification of individuals, limits to the scope of use and accountability.

In the United States, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released a white paper which discusses the limits and the effectiveness of location tracking in epidemics, while another group of researchers suggests that an open-source app and crowdsourcing the data with user consent might the most effective way to slow the spread of the virus with the publication of less sensitive data.

The inclusion of big tech companies like Apple and Google certainly brings another dimension to the discussion, raising both the capacity of development and the amount of data collected but also the stakes in place if something goes wrong. In a partnership, Apple and Google announced a system for contact tracing using Bluetooth which will be embedded in the operational systems (iOS and Android) and promises to keep data anonymized.

The responsible data debate has never gained so much attention than now. It is time for legal and regulatory frameworks “to caught up to the real-world effects of data and technology” (Responsible Data). It is also a time when mistakes can have global consequences.

About the author

Peter is a journalist trying to explore new media in depth, from everyday digital practices to the undesired consequences of a highly connected environment. After more than 10 years of reporting for the most relevant digital outlets in Brazil, he is now second years Research Master’s student in Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam.

[BigDataSur-COVID] Argentina-Brasil: La resignificación del uso de la tecnología en épocas de pandemia

In a world in constant evolution, Latin America is probably the region where the COVID-19 pandemic has most changed the way we communicate as a society, and technology is at the core of this change. This post reviews the cases of Argentina and Brazil as examples to illustrate how the use of technology can create different scenarios of resistance and alterity.

 

by Julián Cordoba Pivotto

 

La situación del COVID-19 ha cambiado la manera de comunicarnos como sociedad. No importa en qué país y situación nos encontremos, algo ha cambiado para cada uno de nosotros a partir de las consecuencias de esta pandemia y uno de los factores principales y más presentes en este cambio es el uso de la tecnología. Gracias a ella, entonces, es posible prolongar y continuar con ciertos aspectos de nuestra vida como el trabajo, el estudio o el encuentro con amigos y familiares. A la vez, también es interesante ver cómo la tecnología nos permite vincularnos de nuevas y diferentes maneras con los gobiernos, que juegan un papel fundamental en esta situación, debido al poder de decisión que tienen.

Sucede que, poco después de que el contagio se esparciera en primer lugar por Asia, Europa, y Norteamérica, llegó el turno de que los mandatarios y líderes de América Latina se enfrenten a los desafíos que trae esta cuestión, adaptándose y concentrándose en las características propias que tiene esta parte del mundo. Así, en un lugar donde se encuentran alteridad, resistencia, subversión y creatividad -como lo sugieren  Milán y Tereré-, los líderes han tomado posiciones y estrategias muy disímiles entre sí, como en el caso de Argentina y Brasil. Como resultado, los habitantes de esos países han respondido de maneras distintas a cada una de estas estrategias. Mi propuesta es revisar estas estrategias y estas respuestas, para encontrar cómo se dio el uso de la tecnología en cada ocasión y pensar en cuales situaciones se distinguen las características que hacen de la región un lugar tan particular. Para eso, creo que es conveniente revisarlas caso por caso.

 

Argentina

Este país fue uno de los primeros en decretar un aislamiento obligatorio, que aplicó para el total del territorio nacional y sólo tuvo como excepción a aquellos considerados “personal de servicio esencial”, como el personal médico o aquellos ligados a la producción y comercialización de alimentos y medicamento. La tecnología jugó un rol principal para la gestión del gobierno: cada transmisión en televisión para comunicar las medidas elegidas se vio reforzada por una fuerte campaña de concientización en redes sociales, con indicaciones sobre qué podían hacer los ciudadanos para evitar los contagios. Un dato interesante es el aprovechamiento de la emergente red social Tik Tok: allí, la cuenta del Ministerio de Salud de Argentina publica consejos para evitar el contagio con un mensaje simple y sencillo, mayormente dirigido a jóvenes, que es el grupo que mayor actividad tiene en esa red.

El gobierno argentino también utilizó la tecnología para desarrollar una aplicación para smartphones, como sucedió en otras partes del mundo. En este caso se trata de CuidAR, una aplicación de descarga obligatoria para quienes requieran el permiso de circulación, que da un autodiagnóstico basado en los síntomas que indique el usuario. Sin embargo, ante la aparición de esta aplicación, los expertos explican que podría no tener el resultado esperado, ya que no queda claro qué hace el gobierno con los datos que se recolectan, o cómo se usan. Además, como la aparición de síntomas podrían restringir el permiso, algunos usuarios podrían optar por simplemente mentir al ingresar esos datos. Falta ver cuál es el futuro de la aplicación, que ya es blanco de críticas por vulneración a la privacidad, pero su diagnóstico no es muy optimista.

Por otro lado, los argentinos y las argentinas también supieron aprovechar la tecnología. Gran parte de la población, aquellos que cuentan con un dispositivo con acceso a internet, aprovecharon este medio para continuar con sus trabajos, clases, reuniones y obligaciones. Sin embargo, no sólo se usaron para eso, sino también para mantener contacto con el gobierno y expresar tanto su apoyo como su disconformidad. Un ejemplo de esto es el uso de Twitter, que se convirtió en el lugar principal para organizar muestras de apoyo hacia el personal de salud: así nacen los aplausos desde los balcones, cada día a las 21 hs como hora pactada.

Pero esos balcones también fueron escenario de otro tipo de expresiones, como las manifestaciones en contra de la misma decisión del gobierno. Sucede que, pasados más de 70 días desde la declaración del aislamiento, cierta parte de la población decidió manifestar quejas y malestar, alegando la defensa de cuestiones como la actividad económica y la caída del consumo. El modus operandi de la organización fue la misma que para el agradecimiento al personal de salud: otra vez las redes sociales en general y Twitter en particular fueron protagonistas. En la actualidad, esta movilización ha tenido respuesta, las demandas fueron escuchadas y se han flexibilizado algunos sectores del país para que parte de la población pueda volver a trabajar.

 

Brasil

El país vecino tuvo una respuesta institucional y poblacional distinta a los efectos de la pandemia. Desde el gobierno, la respuesta fue totalmente distinta a la argentina: su presidente ha calificado al virus como “un resfriadito” y no ha decretado ningún tipo de aislamiento, explicando que priorizaba la actividad económica en su lugar.

El gobierno hizo una campaña con este posicionamiento: con el hashtag #oBrasilNãoPodeParar, justificaba su postura por la negativa de detener la producción y la actividad laboral. La idea del gobierno, al parecer, era que la base de apoyo de Bolsonaro reproduzca y comparta el hashtag para demostrar apoyo a esta incitativa, apoyo que no se dio en redes ni por medio de la tecnología, sino en las calles, del modo habitual y sin respetar el aislamiento social. Allí también, el presidente se hizo presente.

Pero el uso del hashtag no fue solamente por parte del oficialismo brasileño. Del otro lado, también hubo -con mayor expansión y éxito- cierto activismo: con el slogan #ForaBolsonaro, que ya había sido usado anteriormente, alentado y difundido por referentes sociales, líderes de opinión y figuras opositoras, se dio respuesta a la campaña oficialista.

De un modo diferente, otra gran parte de la población de Brasil tuvo una respuesta distinta ante esta (in)acción por parte del gobierno nacional. Se trata de los habitantes de las favelas, quienes habitan zonas donde viven los sectores más económicamente empobrecidos de la sociedad brasileña. En Rocinha, Río de Janeiro, los habitantes empezaron a comunicarse por servicios de mensajería, como WhatsApp, para organizar una cuarentena “autogestionada”, que consistía en un horario límite para la circulación por la zona. En Paraisópolis, São Paulo, se creó la figura del “Presidente de Calle”: un vecino voluntario que se encarga de vigilar y dar apoyo a las 50 familias de su entorno más próximo, quien debe alertar si alguno de los habitantes que vigila presenta alguno de los síntomas, para así hacer más inmediata la atención médica.

En ambas zonas, además, los mismos vecinos junto a algunos voluntarios de distintas organizaciones entregaron los llamados “COVID-19 kits”, que incluyen tapabocas y jabón. La comunicación por servicios de mensajería sirvió para orientar y mejorar su distribución, fundamental para estos habitantes que -en su mayoría- tienen empleos informales y debido a esto la imposibilidad de continuar con ellos o recibir ingresos.

Teniendo en cuenta las características de este tipo de hogares, en los que suelen vivir 10 personas en construcciones de hasta 3 habitaciones -como menciona una activista en este reportaje-, sumado a la falta de información y reacción por parte del gobierno nacional, es necesario actuar. Así lo consideraron los voluntarios y vecinos, quienes decidieron compartir información sobre medidas de distanciamiento social y prevención de los contagios en un contexto en el que proveer información es de vital importancia. Aquí, nuevamente los servicios de mensajería jugaron un factor fundamental.

 

En conclusión

En conclusión, los casos de Argentina y Brasil nos permiten ver cómo la población suele responder, dentro de los vínculos gobernante-gobernados (es decir: los funcionarios en el poder y la ciudadanía), de distintas maneras ante las decisiones que tome el gobierno. A veces apoyándolo, a veces manifestándose en contra, pero siempre reaccionando, lo que demuestra que existe una ciudadanía involucrada.

El apoyo y el rechazo como expresión desde la población hacia los gobernantes varían en consecuencia de las decisiones que tomen y las acciones que elijan los mandatarios. De esta manera es posible notar diferencias ideológicas entre los grupos que las realicen, diferencias que se acentúan con más firmeza al analizar el contenido de las expresiones.

En Argentina, el descontento se manifiesta en demandas de carácter predominantemente económico. En Brasil, por otro lado, las demandas son por mejoras sanitarias. Lo destacable de la comparación entre ambos, es la forma en la que se involucran sus poblaciones: la ciudadanía se preocupa, decide comunicar y actúa en consecuencia: todo eso debido a la pandemia y gracias a la tecnología. El nuevo desafío es que, una vez superada esta situación, esa involucración y ese compromiso se mantenga. Ojalá así sea.

 

About the author

Julián Cordoba Pivotto is currently studying for a Political Science BA at Catholic University of Córdoba (UCC) in Córdoba, Argentina. He intermittently writes about comparative politics and federalism. Contact: juliancordoba11 [@] gmail.com

[BigDataSur-COVID] National stereotypes in times of COVID-19: the ‘frugal four’ and the ‘irresponsible South’

When EU leaders discuss the coronavirus Recovery Fund at the upcoming meeting of the European Council on Friday, some persistent European stereotypes will accompany negotiations.

by Luiza Bialasiewicz

 

The on-going debates regarding the coronavirus Recovery Fund that will form the focus of discussions at the upcoming EU summit on July 17 have highlighted the pernicious persistence of national stereotypes that continue to afflict political positioning and decision-making within the Union.

It would be easy to dismiss such stereotypes as simply an easy short-hand adopted by politicians to position themselves and others within EU political debates on matters regarding everything from migration quotas to budgetary questions. Self- and other- stereotypes also play very well to domestic audiences, providing an easy set of representations on which to draw when arguing for the national position both vis a vis Brussels or other EU member states.

The self-ascribed moniker ‘the frugal four’ adopted by Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden is no exception. Intended to mark out these countries’ opposition to ‘irresponsible’ and ‘excessive’ spending of the proposed EU-wide Recovery Fund, it speaks to a ‘moral’ as well as economic positioning.

Indeed, the term ‘moral hazard’ that was wielded by Dutch politicians in 2012 when a previous proposal for mutualizing European debt was floated has once more appeared on the scene – today, as then, tied to a distinct geographical imagination of hazard, irresponsibility, and excess. We need to take such monikers seriously, for in this moment of common crisis they tell us much not just about radically different views in different EU countries regarding the role and responsibilities of the national state towards its citizenry, but also radically different views regarding responsibilities to Europe and fellow Europeans.

Moral geographies

The most striking example of a ‘clash of stereotypes’ is certainly offered by Italy and the Netherlands. In the past months, Dutch PM Mark Rutte has taken on the role of the most vocal leader of the ‘frugal four’, threatening to block recovery funding to Italy and other (mostly southern European) states if these do not undertake a comprehensive package of reforms.

With this positioning Rutte and his Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra maintain a long-standing self-representation of the Netherlands’ position in the EU as an economically ‘thrifty’ if not directly self-serving actor: ‘effective without empathy’, as the leading government think tank Clingendael described perceptions of Dutch interest promotion within the EU in a report published in the spring of 2019.

Beyond re-playing long-standing self-stereotypes within EU institutions, however, Rutte is also playing to a home audience, conscious of the parliamentary elections that await him in the coming year. When Italian PM Giuseppe Conte arrived in The Hague this past week for a meeting with Rutte, he was greeted outside of the Parliament by far-right leader Geert Wilders, holding up a sign reading: ‘Not a cent for Italy’.

Wilders may represent the extreme wing of Dutch nationalist politics, but the same slogan featured just a month earlier on the front cover of Dutch popular weekly Elsevier Weekblad, accompanied by an illustration that summed up the competing stereotypes: at the top, two industrious Dutch workers, below, two supposed Mediterranean types, lounging in the sun.

The cover caused popular outrage in Italy – though curiously it was Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the right-nationalist Fratelli d’Italia party, allied with Wilders for the 2019 European Parliament elections, that filed a formal complaint, demanding that the government exact an immediate apology from the Dutch ambassador to Rome. ‘The cover is repugnant’ she noted, depicting Italians and other Mediterraneans as ‘parasites’. ‘We don’t accept lessons from Holland which has created a tax haven in Europe and is draining resources from all other Member States’, she added.[i]

There were also immediate reactions from other southern European opinion makers, many in jest, with a Portuguese re-working of the image to depict fat and sun-burned Northern European tourists lounging at the bottom of the image instead, in this tweet from El Pais Brussels correspondent Bernardo de Miguel:

Belgian MEP and chair of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, Guy Verhofstadt, was even stronger in his criticisms: ‘This sort of false reporting led to Brexit’, he tweeted, noting that under the terms of the plan ‘not 1 NL citizen will pay 1 euro more to the Covid Recovery Fund’. Elsevier Weekblad simply discounted the protests with a headline noting “Neo-Fascist Fratelli d’Italia demands apologies”.

The still-authoritarian South

Notwithstanding the accurate descriptor (Fratelli d’Italia is, indeed, the direct heir to the ‘post’ Fascist Alleanza Nazionale party), the choice of terminology also offered the Dutch weekly yet another easy stereotype: the Southern European authoritarian, if not directly (ex)Fascist.

Along with the spendthrift image, the stereotype of the (still) authoritarian Southern Europeans (whether Italian, Spanish or Greek) was indeed another powerful trope circulating all through the months of the lockdown. And not even a particularly implicit one: in his weekly televised addresses to Dutch citizens in the early weeks of the Netherlands’ so-called ‘intelligent lockdown’, PM Rutte insisted on the differences in ‘national character’ that would make the sort of harsh measures adopted in Southern European countries impossible in the Netherlands, since Dutch citizens would simply not accept the sort of limitations on their personal freedoms imposed in Italy and Spain.

Dutch citizens would simply not accept the sort of limitations on their personal freedoms imposed in Italy and Spain.

The choice to adopt only a very limited set of restrictions was a risky one, and indeed in the first months of the ‘intelligent lockdown’ the Netherlands had one of the highest mortality rates from the virus in Europe. The government position also initially insisted on the need to ‘build up population immunity’, though with the rapid debunking of the UK’s ‘herd immunity’ approach, that notion was ‘rapidly repackaged as a useful by-product rather than the main goal’, as Anna Holligan writing for BBC News noted in her report on the scientifically-questionable Dutch strategy. The country also had one of the lowest Covid-19 testing rates in Europe, and it was not until the start of June that testing became available to the general population: a convenient way of ‘keeping the numbers down’.

In justifying the limited range of restrictions – as too the limited state intervention into public health measures – Rutte repeatedly described the Netherlands in his weekly addresses as a ‘grown-up country’. As he noted in one speech, ‘what I hear around me, is that people are glad that they are treated as adults, not as children’. The implication was that the Dutch did not need to be treated like children ‘to behave responsibly’, unlike other European citizenries.

It was not until the start of June that testing became available to the general population: a convenient way of ‘keeping the numbers down’.

Irresponsible children

The paternalism at work in such imagined geographies of Europe is, again, not new, with very similar imaginations at play during and following the 2008 financial crisis which had profoundly unequal consequences across the European space.

As Greek economic geographer Costis Hadjimichalis has argued, to properly understand the geographies of uneven development in the EU, we need to appreciate their founding ‘economic mythologies’, that continue to frame to this day popular imaginations of political-economic choices and outcomes in Europe’s North and South.[i] Disparaging geographical metaphors like ‘Club Med’ or the infamous ‘PIIGS’ (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain) were an evident example of this in the post-2008 years.

The tropes of childishness and irresponsibility applied to Southern European countries like Italy, Spain and Greece today thus draw on a much-longer standing set of imaginations, tracing a direct line of continuity from the financial crisis to the Covid-19 crisis. So too do the prescriptions offered: self-reliance and individual responsibility, the hallmarks of neoliberal capitalism.

‘Italians must learn to make it on their own’

In a front-page interview on the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera in the first week of July, Dutch PM Rutte outlined his country’s position on the Recovery Fund. ‘Dear Italy, learn to make it on your own’ the headline announced.[ii] In the interview (the first given by Rutte to an international newspaper since the start of the pandemic) the PM was direct in his assessment: European solidarity at this moment was important, of course, but so too was ‘national responsibility’. ‘This means that Member States that require and request assistance right now must do what is necessary to be able to face a future crisis of this sort on their own, in resilient fashion’, Rutte noted.

The prescription? ‘Measures that will not be popular’, including ‘reforms that should increase the productivity and competitiveness of Italy’ and the ‘sustainability of public finances’, along with ‘promoting fiscal integrity and transparency’. The irony of the head of the EU state widely considered to be one of the least transparent as a corporate tax haven calling for more ‘fiscal integrity and transparency’ was not lost on the Corriere interviewer: an accusation immediately rejected by Rutte stating that ‘ours is an open economy’, that needs to ‘protect its tax base’.

It is not just a question of competing economic visions that is at play here, however. As Alexander de Croo, Belgium’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance wrote in an editorial published on politico.eu in mid-June, the battle over the Recovery Fund was not simply an economic one, regarding whether or not to create debt: it was ‘an existential one’.

It was nothing less than a battle for the future of the European project. As de Croo wrote, ‘it was time ‘to break free from the narrative of the ‘lazy’ south and the ‘hard-working’ north’, since ‘when it comes to the economic impact of the coronavirus we are all in the same boat’. De Croo’s words were echoed just last week by Angela Merkel in the extended interviewshe gave to a group of European newspapers, as Germany took up the rotating presidency of the European Council on July 1.

It is a much broader, yes, ‘existential’ question, regarding what Europe is ‘for’.

In discussing the proposals for the Recovery Fund, Merkel rejected the question that the proposal for the Fund was a ‘major concession to the southern countries’. As she replied, ‘I don’t find it helpful to talk about thenorthern countries, the southern countries and the eastern Europeans. That is seeing things in black and white. I expect each of us always to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes and consider problems from the other’s point of view’. Keeping in mind ‘the huge burden in economic, medical and, of course, because of the many lives lost, emotional terms’ faced by countries like Italy and Spain, it was ‘only right for Germany to think not just about itself but to be prepared to engage in an extraordinary act of solidarity’.

The Recovery Fund proposal, originally advanced by Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, is indeed about much more than keeping the EU economy afloat. It is a much broader, yes, ‘existential’ question, regarding what Europe is ‘for’. And, as with all existential questions, the symbols, metaphors and stereotypes that inscribe it matter greatly. Is the EU simply little more than a free-trade area, where every state can advance its own particular interests (if need be, also at a cost to others)? Or should it also be an autonomous and supranational political actor, able to make, collectively, fully ‘political’ choices? In a moment in which the well-being of all Europeans is at stake, the choices made at Friday’s summit will have much wider consequences.

Elsevier Weekblad cover.
Elsevier Weekblad cover, May 29, 2020. | All rights reserved.

[i] Just days after the publication of the unfortunate cover story, the European Tax Justice Network published a calculation – widely reported in Italy – on how many millions of euros the Dutch state was ‘stealing’ from Italian state coffers by offering multinational companies (including Italian ones like car maker FIAT) a tax haven in the Netherlands. The report remarked on how ‘the EU countries with the highest reported cases of Covid-19 have been the biggest historical losers of corporate tax to the Netherlands, which is currently a leading opponent of solidarity measures proposed by the EU’.

[ii] Costis Hadjimichalis (2011). ‘Uneven geographical development and socio-spatial justice and solidarity: European regions after the 2009 financial crisis’. European Urban and Regional Studies 18(3):254-274.

[iii] Paolo Valentino (2020). ‘Cara Italia, impara a farcela da sola’. Corriere della Sera Weekly Newsmagazine ‘7’, July 3rd, 14-19.

[BigDataSur-COVID] COVID-19 and Its Impact on Marginalised Communities in Singapore, South Korea, Indonesia, and the Philippines

Although Singapore, South Korea, Indonesia, and the Philippines have pursued different approaches to address the COVID-19 pandemic, they have all had a disproportionate impact on marginalised groups. This article discusses the effects of COVID-19 measures on migrant workers in Singapore, the LGBT community in South Korea, and rural and Indigenous peoples in Indonesia and the Philippines.

 

By Irene Poetranto and Justin Lau

Countries around the world have taken different steps to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. The more developed economies of Singapore and South Korea have utilized technology to help trace, test, and isolate cases at a greater extent compared to emerging economies like Indonesia and the Philippines. Even though variations in measures undertaken exist, they share one thing in common: a disproportionate impact on marginalised groups. This article examines COVID-19 strategies implemented by these countries, and outlines their consequences on vulnerable groups, including migrant workers, the LGBT community, and rural and Indigenous peoples.

Outbreak among Singapore’s migrant workers

With only 266 cases and zero deaths by March 2020, Singapore was seen as a model for other countries to follow in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Its success in curbing the coronavirus’ spread was attributed to lessons-learned from the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak and the fact that the city-state is technologically advanced. The Singaporean government launched an app to determine if potential carriers of the coronavirus have been in close proximity with other people, used a robot “dog” to patrol parks and ensure physical distancing, implemented a digital check-in system, and is giving out wearable tracking devices for reporting health conditions and tracing proximity between users.

Despite its high-tech profile, Singapore’s exceptionalism ended in early May 2020 when 23,000 COVID-19 cases were reported —ninety percent of which were linked to crowded migrant workers’ dormitories. Researchers and activists had warned for years that low-wage migrant workers, who play an integral role in Singapore’s booming economy but live on the fringes of society in precarious conditions, suffer disproportionately from environmental, health, and safety risks. Yet they were largely ignored until COVID-19 cases spread rampantly. This development revealed the dangers of overlooking marginalised groups during a health crisis. Singapore is now seen once again as a model, only this time for other countries not to follow.

The Itaewon cluster and South Korea’s anti-gay backlash

The backlash against South Korea’s LGBT community also illustrates the impact of COVID-19 on marginalised groups that are vulnerable to discrimination. South Korea uses a contact tracing regime that involves surveillance camera footage, cell phone location data, GPS tracking from both cars and phones, QR code entry logs, and credit card purchase records. But as part of tracing efforts, it has disclosed online the personal information of COVID-19 patients, including age, gender, nationality, and occupation, which are also sent to residents via cell phone alerts.

Online attacks and offline harassment against LGBT persons increased when COVID-19 cases that resulted from a man who visited nightspots in Seoul’s Itaewon district, including several popular in the gay community, were made public. Contact tracing in this instance was also problematic, as people in this conservative country were afraid to be associated with the LGBT community or to have their sexuality outed, or both. Excessive disclosure of personal information combined with stigma around LGBT issues may prevent individuals exposed to the virus from getting tested, which compromises public health measures.

Health and security concerns in Papua 

The impact of COVID-19 is even more pronounced for marginalised communities with inadequate healthcare services. Indonesia’s Papua region is double the size of Great Britain with roughly four million people, yet only has five hospitals designated to treat COVID-19 patients, and only two isolation rooms available that meet the World Health Organization’s standards. More than 300 of its Indigenous tribes have small populations, which are threatened with extinction when faced with a pandemic. Papuans lack access to clean water and basic healthcare even though the largest copper and gold mine in the world, called “Grasberg,” is in their resource-rich territory. Run by the U.S.-based mining company Freeport-McMoran, Grasberg, like other mines, initially did not restrict operations even as workers tested positive for the coronavirus. Mine sites have thus become a vector for the spread of COVID-19, with the risk of infecting local communities and Indigenous peoples. When Grasberg became one of Papua’s worst COVID-19 clusters with 150 cases in mid-May, it finally reduced its workforce size to prevent further infections.

The conflict in Papua complicates the COVID-19 response. The Netherlands controlled Papua until 1962 and Papua was temporarily transferred to Indonesia until an act of “self-determination” was completed. Approximately 1,000 Indonesian government-selected participants voted in the referendum, who unanimously opted for Papua to remain with Indonesia. The illegitimacy of the vote, the often violent and arbitrary crackdowns by Indonesian security forces, as well as media restrictions and Internet shutdowns help explain Papuans’ demands for secession. This conflict has been ongoing for over five decades, and in May 2020, an armed group allegedly shot members of a local COVID-19 response team.

Mining operations in the Philippines

Resource-rich areas in the Philippines are also increasingly under threat. Considered the most dangerous place in the world for land and environmental defenders, the Philippines had the highest number of murdered defenders of any country in 2018 and environmental protection remains challenging. The Nueva Vizcaya Province, for example, is the site of a dispute with a mining company, OceanaGold, a Canadian-Australian public company that has been accused of human rights violations. OceanaGold’s permit to run the gold and copper mine known as “Didipio” had expired in June 2019. The local government wants the mine shut due to environmental concerns, yet it continues to operate.

In April 2020, locals opposed to the Didipio mine erected a “peoples’ barricade,” but they were violently dispersed by the police for violating COVID-19 lockdown measures. Meanwhile, despite a province-wide lockdown covering Homonhon Island, the central government allowed a China-bound ship to dock there to load chromite ore. This incident was in defiance of local authorities who denied its entry for fear of COVID-19 infections, as Homonhon has no health facility, no sea ambulance, and no functioning community hospital.

Similarities and differences between the four countries

Singapore, South Korea, Indonesia, and the Philippines have faced different challenges in responding to the pandemic, but they share commonalities. Singapore’s and South Korea’s technologically-driven solutions have sparked national and global debates on balancing public health and the right to privacy. Singapore’s launch of a wearable device that may be issued to every resident has resulted in fears of surveillance and privacy violations. South Korea’s pervasive collection of personal data has also surfaced privacy concerns and social stigma concerns that are feared more than the disease itself.

Unlike Singapore and South Korea, Indonesia and the Philippines have weak healthcare systems and rely on security-heavy strategies. Indonesia’s COVID-19 task force chief is an Army lieutenant general and the Indonesian military and police have been ordered to enforce physical distancing, while in the Philippines, the Defense Secretary heads the national task force on COVID-19 and has sought full military and police support to implement its pandemic plan. Indonesia and the Philippines have also launched contact tracing apps that use the centralised model and have been criticised for providing insufficient data protection. Trust issues have thus impeded the widespread adoption of the government’s official contact tracing app in both countries.

Conclusion
Despite the four countries’ varied approaches to COVID-19, they nevertheless disproportionately and negatively impact marginalised communities. It is clear that, although the virus does not discriminate, its consequences do. Therefore, as governments around the world strive to tackle the pandemic, it is imperative that they do so in a transparent and rights-respecting manner, and in ways that are inclusive of local communities.

 

About the authors

Irene Poetranto is a Senior Researcher at the Citizen Lab and a PhD Candidate at the Department of Political Science, University of Toronto.

Justin Lau is a research assistant at the Citizen Lab and a student in the Munk School’s Master of Global Affairs program, University of Toronto.

[BigDataSur-COVID] COVID-19 in Africa: A Datafied Society, Battling the Invisible Enemy

This article addresses the role of data in efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic in Africa. Drawing on multiple state examples, it discusses the ethical questions posed by datafied public health surveillance and the importance of harmonising national data protection systems.

 

By Oarabile Mudongo

COVID-19 presents a dynamic overtone of an African society encountering digital data transition in almost every aspect of human activity, from digital contact tracing to surveillance, all initiated by governments to help control the spread of COVID-19.

The number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Africa remains comparatively low, as reported by the World Health Organization (WHO) there are over 200,000 confirmed cases as of 1st June. However, these numbers are growing. A newly published report by the Partnership for Evidence Based Response to COVID-19 (PERC) exposes some of the alarming findings of the devastations of COVID-19 across Africa, with the head of WHO cautioning African states to prepare for the worst.

As African governments continue with their efforts to track people exposed to coronavirus and combat its spread, several countries in the continent have adopted various techniques such as digital contact tracing technologies (mobile apps using Bluetooth), data mining and sharing of aggregated geolocation data from mobile operators. In South Africa, for example, researchers at the University of Cape Town are developing a COVID-19 app to assist the government track COVID-19 positive cases, and also mobile operators are sharing phone location data about movements of people. While on the other hand, the government through a partnership with Telkom and Samsung alongside the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) are developing a novel track and trace system that identifies infected people.

Furthermore, the Botswana government has also announced a contact tracing app that centralizes people’s data in the government-owned database whereas in Kenya the state is surveilling mobile phones of individuals who are on self-quarantine and detaining those who contravene the restrictions imposed on movements. In general, it is still unclear which countries in Africa are utilizing technology-driven disease surveillance tools except for a few countries mentioned above. If ignored and remain unchallenged, this adopted measures and tools being used have the potential to fundamentally violate personal privacy and other human rights.

In addition, these measures are likely to exacerbate unlawful discrimination and may disproportionately cause harm to minority groups. For instance, Telkom and Samsung are reportedly in talks with SA authorities to track those with COVID-19. The South Korean technology company Samsung, which recently faced some questionable ethics problemson its AI surveillance technology is now proposing to develop a big data analysis tool for the government which claims to track the spread of COVID-19 by tracing people’s movements. The problem with some of these tools deployed is that they use obscure algorithms, which may influence biased decision-making and contribute to discrimination.

At the helm of a datafied society is the amount of digital footprints people leave behind while accessing the internet, from monitoring movements of people and state output to targeted advertising online and the digital contact tracing apps developed to track COVID-19. Though many people may not remember every place they’ve visited, governments have the capacity to use digital trails to fill in the missing information on COVID-19 infected patients’ activities. For instance, in South Africa the government is working with mobile operators that are sharing cellphone data to trace people’s movements in response to COVID-19 pandemic.

Although these may be well-intentioned efforts by African governments, some COVID-19 surveillance and data mining interventions have been implemented with limited oversight structures. In addition, this has sparked debates around the ethics and legality of disease surveillance, and WHO has developed guidelines on ethical issues in public health surveillance. These guidelines must be considered to assist policymakers and health practitioners navigate the ethical issues presented by public health surveillance.

While Africa’s data protection landscape is somewhat evolving, on a regional level, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) adopted a Supplementary Act on Personal Data Protection and in 2013, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) published a Model Data Protection Act. Additionally, in 2014, the African Union adopted the Convention on Cyber Security and Personal Data Protection (the Malabo Convention). These measures demonstrate and support the adoption of data protection laws in the continent. Despite the regional organizations’ efforts, the overall legislative framework is not fully harmonized.

Nevertheless, COVID-19 has continually revealed the existing lack of collaboration and communication amongst states, intergovernmental organisations and mobile operators about the role technology plays in shaping public policy during COVID-19 pandemic. This is a complex issue that has proven a disconnect between society and governments exacerbated with suspicions and mistrust. Going forward, African governments need to scrutinize these concerns while acknowledging extraordinary circumstances that require stakeholder engagement.

Surveillance or monitoring measures should adhere to national laws and be limited in their scope to fulfil the aim of public health protection. These measures should be established as temporary and be limited as required to meet the needs of the public health emergency, with safeguards to protect human rights and any misuse of technologies by either private corporations or governments who may use the data for unlawful purposes.

Human rights principles reinforce the effectiveness of global efforts to combat COVID-19, creating a balance between the right to health and the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms is the best approach to fighting the pandemic. These principles are in fact intertwined. If human rights are protected and well respected by authorities, user confidence is also gained and the ability to contact tracing tools to provide support for public health authorities achieves the intended goals.

 

About the author

Oarabile Mudongo is a technologist and a Ford Foundation / Media Democracy Fund Technology Exchange (Tx) fellow. He works with Research ICT Africa as a Research fellow on the Africa AI Policy Project (AIAPP) mapping Artificial Intelligence (AI) usage in Africa and associated governance issues affecting the African continent.

[BigDataSur-COVID] COVID-19 from the Margins: What We Have Learned So Far

COVID-19 from the Margins was launched at the beginning of May 2020 as a multilingual blog platform, with the aim to give voice to narratives on the pandemic from social groups and individuals invisibilized by mainstream coverage and policies.. Two months down the line, we reflect on the core threads emerged so far, with a look to the future of South-based narrations of the first pandemic of the datafied society.

by Silvia Masiero, Stefania Milan and Emiliano Treré

 

Since the World Health Organisation declared the outbreak of COVID-19 a pandemic on 11 March 2020, narratives of the virus outbreak centred on counting and measuring have became dominant in public discourse. Enumerating and comparing cases and locations, victims or the progressive occupancy of intensive care units, policymakers and experts alike have turned data into the condition of existence of the first pandemic of the datafied society. However, many communities at the margins—from workers in the informal economy to low-income countries to victims of domestic violence—were left in the dark.

This is why our attention of researchers of datafication across the many Souths inhabiting the globe turned into the untold stories of the pandemic. We decided to make space for narratives from those individuals, communities, countries and regions that have thus far remained at the margins of global news reports and relief efforts. The multilingual blog COVID-19 from the Margins, launched on 4 May 2020, hosts stories of invisibility, including from migrants and communities living in countries and regions with limited statistical capacity or in cities and slums where pre-existing inequality and vulnerability have been augmented by the pandemic. In entering the third month of this initiative, a reflection on the main threads emerged from the 28 articles published so far is in order to devise our look to the future. In what follows, we identify four threads that have informed discussions on this blog so far, namely data visualisation, perpetuated vulnerabilities and inequalities, datafied social policies, and digital activism at the time of the pandemic.

Human invisibilities: Counting at the time of the pandemic

The inaugural piece of COVID-19 from the Margins pointed to the widening data divide that communities in the Souths are subjected to. In a strong exemplification of this problem, the blog hosted a contribution exploring conditions of (in)visibility affecting migrant communities during the pandemic, raising concerns about a just data management applied to populations on the move. As it became publicly noticeable in this global health crisis, data visualisation has important implications for data interpretation and management: a recent post from Italy narrates how local communities make sense of data, building collective learning experiences in the process. Consequently, the blog has turned to those communities whose vulnerability results in particular needs for visibility and visualisation.

Feminist data visualisations, giving visibility to statistics on impacts of COVID-19 on domestic violence and female education rates, offer a means to deal with one such vulnerability. Children from families affected from poverty and precariousness, as well as communities working in the informal sector of countries affected by the pandemic, need to make themselves visible to the state to become the recipients of social policy measures such as subsidies that are vital in situations of crisis. Through multiple narratives from the world, posts published on this blog have revealed the key role of (good) data visualisation in times of crises, and its consequences on governments’ ability to cater effectively to vulnerable groups.

Perpetuated vulnerabilities and inequalities

Authors writing for the blog have illuminated the situations of perpetuated vulnerability affecting a variety of communities during the COVID-19 emergency. In a post on the struggles experienced by the LGBTQ+ community it has been noted that, as “stay at home” becomes the new normal, ingrained societal prejudice may result in leaving LGBTQ+ community members without a home to stay in. An article on the struggles of digital economy workers, specifically ride-hailing workers in Brazil, has observed the perpetuation of uncertainty under COVID-19, leaving workers unable to hold public and private entities accountable for the health and economic risks suffered under the pandemic. A post on the emergency in São Paulo, Brazil, has illustrated the perpetuation of socio-economic inequalities under the pandemic, with historically poor and disadvantaged areas of the city suffering the most serious consequences of the health crisis.

Along these lines, one of our opening posts had already noted that, in times of global crisis and vulnerability, ordinary measures of social assistance acquire special importance for those affected. In this light, the narratives of perpetuated vulnerability and inequality unfolding under the pandemic become crucial, as they highlight critical situations that—crystallised under the context of the global crisis— require ad-hoc forms of intervention to limit the profound socioeconomic impacts of the health emergency.

Datafied social policies: A new importance under COVID-19

As national lockdowns, translating into different measures across the world, took hold of civil societies during COVID-19, vulnerable groups including below-poverty-line households, refugees, internally displaced persons, and workers from the informal sector whose income depends on the outputs of daily work, have been disproportionately affected by the crisis. Stories from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, India, Peru and Spain have highlighted the importance of social policies in emergency, as well as the consequences of datafication on such policies in the current time. While portraying different country cases, these narratives find at least two common denominators. Firstly, they point to the importance of information in devising social protection policy, and primarily, information on who is entitled to emergency assistance and on the size of such entitlements. Datafication reifies existing determination of entitlements and, in the cases of narrow targeting narrated on this blog, it exposes the consequences of making social assistance conditional to strict entitlement criteria.

A second theme exposed by the blog points to the problematic consequences of making social welfare conditional to digital identification, in a time at which vulnerability is heightened by the crisis. In India, where security concerns have emerged around the national contact-tracing app, a pre-existing ecosystem of digital identification centred on Aadhaar (the largest biometric database worldwide) has revealed the perils of perpetuating biometric access to social protection during lockdown. Such perils pertain to the use of biometrics as a means to combat inclusion errors rather than wrongful exclusions, contributing to ban access for the non-entitled but not to ensure access or data justice to the wrongfully excluded. The reshuffled priorities of the global emergency posed by COVID-19 powerfully illustrate such issues, effectively questioning the ethics of targeting and its impact on social assistance programs.

Digital and Data Activism during COVID-19

Narratives of digital power from multiple contexts, including China and Russia, have been explored in relation to COVID-19. These narratives have been key in formulating questions around digital activism during the pandemic, interrogating the affordances of extant platforms on providing information and support to vulnerable groups during the crisis. A post from Argentina explored the usage of the instant messaging service WhatsApp in coordinating solidarity groups catering to vulnerable people, while a post centred on Latin America provided context on the anatomy of biopolitics experienced during COVID-19. In continuity with such discourses, one of the most recent posts published on the blog discusses citizen sensing as an affordance of activism in the datafied society, exploring the implications of such a practice under COVID-19.

In appraising the perpetuation of socio-economic vulnerabilities under the pandemic, understanding the affordances of digital platforms in catering and giving voice to the excluded is crucial. It is also of primary importance to understand the risks posed by datafication in the current scenario, and to balance considerations of privacy and security with such affordances. In the present situation, the devising of novel means of digital activism respectful of social distancing measures—such as the digital march of Desaparecidos’ mothers in Mexico—exposes the new facets that activism may acquire under the predicaments of COVID-19.

Looking forward                                                                  

As the blog enters its third month of activity, reflecting on the medium and long-term consequences of the pandemic—with lockdowns progressively being eased in many corners of the globe and yet more vulnerabilities unfolding for the communities narrated here—will be crucial. In this rapidly evolving scenario, we remain committed to giving voice to global, multilingual narratives about the effects of the pandemic on the Souths, in the hope of consolidating the blog as a space for the multiple, different untold stories of COVID-19 from the Margins to be narrated, amplified and circulated.

[BigDataSur-COVID] Sensing COVID-19 and Climate Change [2/2]

by Marie Petersmann and Anna Berti Suman

 

Read Part I, published on June 30th

Citizen Sensing: From Sensing Radiations to COVID-19

In the immediate aftermath of the disastrous earthquake and tsunami that struck eastern Japan on 11 March 2011 and the subsequent meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, accurate and trustworthy radiation information was publicly unavailable.

Against this backdrop, a volunteer-driven non-profit organization called Safecast was formed to enable individuals ‘to monitor, collect and openly share radiation measurements’ and other data on radiation levels. The initiative ‘mobilized individuals and collectives’ in response to risks that were perceived as extremely urgent to monitor, namely the post-Fukushima radiations burdens. Safecast can thus be regarded as a ‘shock-driven’ initiative that constitutes a ‘successful [example of] citizen [sensing] for radiation measurement and communication after Fukushima’. As this initiative grew quickly in size, scope and geographical reach, Safecast’s mission soon expanded to provide citizens worldwide with the necessary tools they need to inform themselves by gathering and sharing accurate environmental data in an open and participatory fashion. Through a form of ‘auto-empowerment’, Safecast participants were able to monitor their own homes and environments, thereby ‘free[ing] themselves of dependence on government and other institutions for this kind of essential information’. As described on Safecast’s website, this process gave rise to ‘technically competent citizen science efforts worldwide’.

Reaction

Following the outbreak of COVID-19, the Safecast collective engaged in a rapid response to the virus by setting up an information platform on the evolution of the crisis and a map of COVID-19 testing that provides a picture of where to obtain testing options in various locations (see covid19map.safecast.org). Over the years, Safecast had accumulated much experience and insights on ‘trust, crisis communication, public perception, and what happens when people feel threatened by a lack of reliable information’. Yet, the Safecast collective still struggles to be heard as ‘many scientists ignore their data’. Despite this scarce official recognition, Safecast took advantage of its experience and societal impact to rapidly respond to the current pandemic.

As observed by Safecast volunteers, ‘[w]e find ourselves again trying to better understand what is happening’. In a webinar on ‘Lessons we are learning from the COVID-19 pandemic for radiological risk communication’, Azby Brown (as volunteer at Safecast and director of the Kanazawa Institute of Technology’s Future Design Institute in Tokyo) drew several links between the nature of ionising radiations and the COVID-19. By alluding to the invisible presence and constant risks posed by such hyperobjects, the invitation to the webinar started by highlighting that ‘[y]ou can’t see, smell, or taste it, but it may be a problem’, which applies equally to radiations as well as viruses. Elsewhere, Brown observed that:

Fear of the unknown is normal, and radiation and viruses are both invisible threats that heighten anxiety. Most people have almost no way to determine for themselves whether they have come into contact with either of these threats, and they find themselves dependent on specialists, testing devices, and government and media reports. If the government and media do not provide clear, credible explanations and prompt communications, misinformation and mistrust can easily take root and spread.

For Brown, Safecast could provide a relevant risk communication perspective in the current COVID-19 context based on the experience gained after the Fukushima disaster. Despite major differences between ionising radiations and COVID-19, similarities in risks communications are worth exploring. 

Analogous governmental failures on risk communication were observed regarding, for example, shortcomings in rapidly conveying clear messages to the public and communicate strategies based on non-conflicting expert and policy opinions. The ambiguous and incomplete information received from the authorities generated a sense of uncertainty and distrust for many citizens dependent on single sources of official information. Against this backdrop, initiatives such as Safecast that enable people to control and monitor the presence and degrees of certain risks provide an alternative source of credible crowdsourced information. Beyond the immediate informational benefit for sensing citizens, such tools can further enable holding governments and officials into account.

A global phenomenon

At the time of writing, citizen sensing initiatives tackling COVID-19 are multiplying around the world (as listed here and here or exemplified here). Such citizen sensing practices ‘constitute ways of expressing care about environments, communities and individual and public health’ (Gabrys, at 175). As argued by Gabrys, these practices ‘are not just ways of documenting the presence of [threats]’ but are also ‘techniques for tuning sensation and feeling environments through different experiential registers’ (Ibid, 177). Granular monitoring by sensing citizens is seen as particularly valuable in times of emergencies, when governments are faced with urgent, massive and systemic risks of spatial and temporal scales that defy immediate control – such as the current pandemic.

Civic ‘sentries’ can both offer relief to affected people through solidarity networks and provide resources to policy-makers and scientists through wider access to grassroots-driven and situated information ‘from below’. Citizen sensing initiatives also enable lay people, turned into ‘sensing citizens’, to retain a greater degree of agency over the production and use of the data assembled. Against the ever-increasing rise of ‘bio-surveillance states’ and the development of ‘symptoms-tracking’ and ‘contact-tracing’ apps, ‘bottom-up innovations’ might help to counter the acceleration of ‘digital surveillance’ that may be hard to scale back after the pandemic.

Open access citizens’ sensed data may be considered more transparent and trustworthy by the public and convey important information on widely shared everyday lived experiences. By rendering data about real but invisible threats (and how these are perceived and felt) available through the intermediary of sensing citizens, a redistribution of (access to) information and agency in knowledge production is enabled. Finally, the increased ‘(datafied) relational awareness’ and ‘forms of correlational sight’ (Chandler, at 130) that are produced can create new appreciations of inherent yet invisible connections between human and non-human coexisting lifeforms.

Concluding thoughts

As hyper-objects, both the COVID-19 and climate change defy not only our understanding but also our control. Their causes and effects are so massively dispersed across space and time that they evade unmediated appearance. The impacts of hyperobjects operate through forms of ‘slow violence’, which are ‘often attritional, disguised, and temporally latent, making the articulation of slow violence a representational challenge’ (Davies, at 2). Only partial, local and deferred manifestations can be captured through experience. Our way of relating and responding to such hyperobjects depends on temporal, spatial and emotional predicaments. The more temporally immediate, spatially proximate and emotionally tangible the threats of hyperobjects are, the greater and quicker our responses tend to be. Temporal, spatial and emotional scales are central to our ability to sense the presence of invisible threats such as viruses and changes in the climate.

While socio-ecological threats posed by climate change have been present for decades and increasingly materialized across the globe in recent years (for certain peoples more than others), responses remained relatively marginal in light of the risks at stake. Conversely, while the (health) threats posed by the COVID-19 are of a relatively shorter-term (leaving aside the longer-term consequences of the socio-economic crisis it engendered), those risks triggered immediate and radical responses. The fact that the COVID-19 is sensed as a ‘direct risk’ to individuals or vulnerable relatives prompts instant reactions. The sensed proximity (both temporal and spatial) of the invisible threat points to important questions.

The current pandemic brought to light what climate activists deplored for long, namely that we tend to care more for risks posed to our individual conditions. A sense of emotional distance is generated by spatial and temporal gaps. This self-centred sentiment is reinforced by an anthropocentric appraisal that limits our ethics of care to the sole concern for the human species, instead of striving to ‘support the flourishing of other animals and natural things’ with which we are intrinsically entangled. While pessimistic projections on climate change have often been framed as triggering a sense of denial, paralysis or aporia, the current pandemic shows how emotions such as fear, anxiety and dread can also lead to mobilization, collective concern and action.

Emotions are, ultimately, about social movement, stirring and agitation: the root of the word ‘emotion’ is the Latin emovere, which implies both movement and agitation. Despite serious risks of strategic exploitation of fear or despair by political actors instrumentalizing a ‘state of exception’, such emotions can also unleash an enhanced sense of solidarity and cohesion through increased awareness of our fragile state of coexistence and new forms of collective attachment. This is true at the human level – as we saw emerging a myriad of new forms of ‘social proximity’ – but also at a ‘more-than-human’ level, by inviting to be alert and attentive to ‘humans’ impact on and interdependence with the ‘natural’ world we are part of. Such sensibilities can give rise to a sense of cross-species shared vulnerability, where hope and grief enable to re-envision different forms of ‘collaborative survival’ (Tsing, at 4). In this short blogpost, we did not tackle any of these ethical questions in depth.

More modestly, we explored how citizen sensing initiatives can help bridging the temporal, spatial and emotional distance between human (re)actions and present, yet invisible, threats through self-production of independent knowledge and agency. As Gabrys reminds us:

These practices are not just ways to rework the data and evidence that might be brought to bear on environmental problems. They are also ways of creating sensing entities, relations, and politics, which come together through particular ways of making sense of environmental problems (Gabrys, at 732).

We argued that, by recasting the actants and subjectivities involved, the technological and data-based sensors used by ‘sensing citizens’ have a world-making effect by facilitating awareness and intelligibility of certain threats. While physical isolation is being implemented (almost) globally, this doesn’t mean that we need to feel isolated and powerless. Daily citizen science is all about re-imagining scales and the potential of working together to provide a sense of connection and purpose. In reconfiguring the ‘distribution of the sensible’ – as a ‘system of self-evident facts of sense perception that simultaneously discloses the existence of something in common and the delimitations that define the respective parts and positions within it’ (Rancière, at 12) – new avenues are opened up for citizens to foresee, understand and visualize threats, and ‘(ac)count’ the damages caused (Bettini et al., at 6 and 8).

Beyond the realm of immediate perception and individual or collective (re)actions, decentralized, grassroots-driven and cooperative sensing technologies may also redistribute agency to challenge more ‘official’ monitoring infrastructures and hold actors into account to galvanize appropriate political responses. Politics, ultimately, ‘revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of spaces and the possibilities of time’ (Rancière, at 13). These configurations of the sensible, we argue, provide an important terrain for rethinking the politics of hyperobjects such as the COVID-19 and climate change.

 

About the authors

Marie Petersmann is postdoctoral Research Fellow (Swiss National Science Foundation) based at the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University. Anna Berti Suman is NWO Rubicon postdoctoral researcher at the Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology, and Society, seconded at the European Commission Joint Research Center (JRC) – Digital Economy Unit.

[BigDataSur-COVID] Sensing COVID-19 and Climate Change [1/2]

by Marie Petersmann and Anna Berti Suman

Adapted from Petersmann, M. and A. Berti Suman, Sensing COVID-19 and Climate Change. Environmental Law Blog, May 2020.

Over the past weeks, a plethora of articles explored the relations between the COVID-19 crisis and the climate catastrophe by framing the former as an opportunity to learn lessons for tackling the latter. Among the firsts was an essay by Bruno Latour, inviting us to address the current pandemic as a ‘dress rehearsal’ that incites us to prepare for climate change. Elsewhere, Latour argued that the pandemic had ‘actually proven that it is possible, in a few weeks, to put an economic system on hold everywhere in the world and at the same time, a system that we were told it was impossible to slow down or redirect’. Yet, despite the fact that both events constitute globally shared ‘collective’ experiences, immediate societal responses to them vary greatly. While both events are partially intertwined in their causes and effects, their differences in spatio-temporal scales and socio-ecological implications make socio-political responses to them difficult to compare.

Of course, this is not to say that links between the two events do not exist. The outbreak of the zoonotic COVID-19 is entangled with multiple and often interacting ‘threats to ecosystems and wildlife, including habitat loss, illegal trade, pollution, invasive species and, increasingly, climate change’.

Impacts
On a positive note, we observed a widely shared enthusiasm among the climate scientific community when the measurements of the European Copernicus agency registered an unusual drop in nitrogen dioxide levels in February 2020, as analysed by NASA’s ground observation team. The COVID-19 is indeed set to have caused the ‘largest ever annual fall in CO2 emissions’, more than during any previous economic crisis or period of war. Studies also showed, inversely, that low levels of air pollution may be a key contributor to prevent COVID-19 deaths. Finally, the plunging demand for oil wrought by the COVID-19 was said to have permanently altered the course of the climate catastrophe. As a result, after 2019 being coined ‘the year of climate consciousness’ with a ‘growing momentum’ for climate activism, the current drop of atmospheric pollution was welcomed as a windfall by many.

A call for caution was, however, voiced by those who plead for more nuance and refrain from granting agency to the virus itself, pointing instead to the temporary retreat from capitalism’s ‘industrial production and its handmaidens’ to explain the current low emissions. Although praised by many as a ‘catalyst for transformation’ that brings about ‘an unprecedented opportunity to rethink how our beliefs, values, and institutions shape our relationships’, on the long run, the economic crisis triggered by the COVID-19 may well lead to a suspension of adopted and prospective climate measures. Circular economists and de-growth advocates also pointed to the short-term risks that the pandemic may trigger by increasing the use of private transportation means or the consumption of single use plastic (including gloves, masks and disposable cups in bars). This has led certain cities, such as Amsterdam, to pro-actively consider the ‘“doughnut” model to mend the post-COVID-19 economy’, bearing in mind that ‘calls for solidarity with the weak and disadvantaged must be part and parcel of [such] shifts’.

Ultimately, the fact that even in a world that has come to a halt, we still fall short of the emission targets needed to keep global warming from surpassing 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, shows the structural and systemic deficiencies we need to deal with and signal ‘how much further there is to go’.

Towards sensing engagement
Whether or not the COVID-19 crisis will be beneficial for tackling climate change on the long run beyond the immediate drop in atmospheric pollution remains, thus, a question open to debate, which outcome will dependent on the political will of states, corporations and citizens. Our purpose here is not to add one more proposal to the existing ‘menu’ of policy goals for the post-COVID-19 time to come. Neither do we wish to celebrate the environmental impact of the corona crisis, which feels inappropriate at a time when many are suffering from the disease and its related harms (from dead relatives that could not be buried, bodies that decomposed in trucks for overflow storage in funeral homes, unprecedented unemployment rates, soaring queues before food banks or unaffordable medical bills) and others are sacrificing themselves ‘at the front’ of the health emergency. Instead, our objective is to explore how the turn to sensing as a distinctive mode of engagement with socio-ecological issues can be productive to (re)imagine and address ongoing events such as the COVID-19 and climate change.

In line with Fleur Johns, ‘[s]ensing, in this context, refers to the work of eliciting, receiving, and processing impressions and information, both in the mode of intuitions or feelings, and in terms of data’ – it ‘includes all bodily faculties of perception, but is not restricted to corporeal sensation, individual or collective’. Sensing, as such, ‘is never just about the body, as distinct from the mind’ (Johns, at 60-61).

In the next section, we start by theoretically defining and elaborating on the potential of sensing as a way to cope with events like the current pandemic and climate change, which call for a different (re)configuration of existence. We see the turn to sensing as responding to Donna Haraway’s invitation to ‘stay with the trouble’ of living and dying together on a damaged earth, perceived as more conducive to the kind of thinking that would provide means to build more liveable futures. We then turn to specific examples of ‘citizen sensing’ initiatives and conclude by questioning how the insights drawn from such ‘sensing practices’ can be fruitful to cope with the risks associated to the corona crisis and climate change.

1) Sensing the Unknown

Both the COVID-19 and climate change are examples of ‘hyperobjects’ – a term coined by philosopher Timothy Morton to refer to entities that are so massively distributed in space and time that they defy not only our understanding but also our control. The COVID-19 cannot be seen, yet its latent presence is everywhere. Gone pandemic, the COVID-19 cannot be contained nor controlled, only its effects can be mitigated through specific ‘guidelines’ and ‘physical distancing’ (a survival tool revealing inequalities that span across classgenderrace and mental health dimensions). Similarly, climate change affects us all (unequally), despite it being ‘almost impossible for changes in climate to be perceived through individual experience’ (Bauer and Bhan, at 19). Both the COVID-19 and climate change share the characteristics
that Morton ascribes to hyperobjects: they are ‘viscous’ (they ‘stick’ to us); ‘nonlocal’ (their overall effects are globally distributed across space and time); ‘phased’ (we can only experience local manifestations of them at any one time and place) and ‘inter-objective’ (they are intertwined with other objects to which they cannot be reduced). Their reality and existence challenge human perception and imagination. The objects under concern remain, in other words, elusive or invisible, although their reality is unquestionable. While they defy, as a whole, immediate and unmediated human experience, we can, however, sense their existence and omnipresence.

Against this backdrop, speculative approaches dispense with necessary (phenomenological) correlations between knowledge and first-person experience, and recognize the limits of human thought and imagination to relate to events or entities that humans do not perceive directly. They invite us, instead, to empathically relate to such events and sense their effects even without unmediated access to them. While the realm of ‘experience’ is limited to ‘actual observations’ and the process of ‘learning by practical trial or proof’, the definition of ‘sense’ alludes to the ‘faculty of perception [and] feeling’. As such, it refers both to the detection of certain parameters and the emotions associated with what is revealed. Seen through this prism, sensing aspires to emotionally relate to the distress caused by certain events, whether the harm directly or only indirectly impacts us as human being. In other words, it is an invitation to engage creatively, imaginatively and speculatively with such events beyond immediate human representation and experience, in order to sense their constantly present and emerging effects in the sphere of the actual. As Morton puts it, the mere fact of thinking their existence – or sensing their effects – requires us to care about such hyperobjects.

Governments

From a governance perspective, a number of studies showed how a turn to sensing can be productive to re-envisage political perspectives and legal approaches to reconsider the more-than-human world we inhabit. As elaborated by David Chandler, sensing as a form of governance is based on correlation rather than causation, and depends on the disposition to ‘see things in their process of emergence or in real time’ (Chandler, at 22). The deployment of sensing through new technologies can play a decisive role in environmental politics, by inspiring awareness and mobilizing publics. These forms of ‘material participation’ can facilitate the capacity to detect the effects of relational interactions and cast them as either problems or possibilities. As such, ‘biosensory techniques’ can make ‘imperceptible harms perceptible’, ‘knowable’ and ‘measurable’ and permit ‘a growing awareness of planetary life’ (Johnson, at 284-285).

By producing ‘forms of correlational sight’, the effects of interactions between entities are rendered perceptible, and enable ‘new forms of (datafied) relational awareness’ (Chandler, at 130). At a local level, the use of sensory technologies by individuals or communities allows for grassroots-driven, bottom-up and auto-empowering engagement with and responsivities to certain threats. Such engagements ‘“empower” citizens by shifting the infrastructures, technologies and practices of monitoring to less institutionalised arrangements’ (Gabrys, at 177). From this perspective, ‘sensing citizens’ are seen as part of ‘material-political arrangements and struggles over who generates, legitimizes, and has authority over data and how data is mobilized to make claims for environmental and other rights’ (Ruppert, Isin and Bigo, at 6). With the burgeoning trend towards a ‘digitalization of mainstream environmental and climate governance’ (Bettini et al., at 2), technology plays a key role in the constitution of socio-ecological assemblages, and promotes a novel ontology that changes the very nature of liberal governance (Beraldo and Milan, at 1).

Citizens using sensing technologies are thereby recast as a ‘geo-socially networked community of sensors’ (Chandler, at 158). As such, they are able to ‘make visible politically masked risks’ and claim back their agency in shaping responses to the socio-ecological issues at stake. In the next section, we will explore how forms of ‘citizen sensing’ can facilitate individuals and communities who are sensitive to the material, interdependent world they are part of, to act as proactive agents in their own governance and through responsive care.

 

Read Part II

About the authors

Marie Petersmann is postdoctoral Research Fellow (Swiss National Science Foundation) based at the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University. Anna Berti Suman is NWO Rubicon postdoctoral researcher at the Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology, and Society, seconded at the European Commission Joint Research Center (JRC) – Digital Economy Unit.

[BigDataSur-COVID] COVID-19 in Argentina: When the micro-practices of activism fit in a WhatsApp message

This article addresses the importance of WhatsApp during COVID-19 times in Argentina. It analyzes the use of WhatsApp amidst informal and institutional actors and the bridges it has built for interacting, communicating and creating communitarianism.

by Raquel Tarullo*

Circles of friends, members of sports clubs, parents associations and work colleagues are new actors that have come along with the pandemic in Argentina to provide, in the emergency, food and clothing for thousands of families who live in poverty. These groups, that are neither social movements nor civic associations, use their WhatsApp contacts and the groups they have on this social network to promote, by using distribution lists, their food drives to prepare meals they deliver once a week.

Parallel to this trend, teachers of schools with vulnerable student bodies find in WhatsApp the channel for communicating with families and, in some way, accompanying students in what the government has called ‘Pedagogical Continuity Plan’, as most of them do not have access to the internet or technological devices. Moreover, teachers use this platform for sharing useful information with these families, such as state assistance payment calendars and the WhatsApp direct line for reporting gender or familiar violence.

A universal platform

In Argentina, WhatsApp has become the best ally for an activism that has introduced new actors and new practices since national government established a severe lockdown on 20 March. This platform is used by groups of people that have organized themselves to prepare meals for those poor families that COVID-19 has enormously hurt. Besides, WhatsApp is the only channel that teachers of schools with vulnerable student bodies have not only for interacting with their students’ families, but also for being a communication bridge between the government and their students’ families. Why do they both use WhatsApp? Because the use of this platform in Argentina is almost universal: more than 90 percent of the population use this channel to stay connected and communicate, sharing statuses, selling goods and spreading news. Currently, it is also used for performing micro repertoires of activism.

More than a half of kids and teenagers live below the poverty line in Argentina. According to the last UNICEF report of COVID-19 effects in the country, that percentage will reach 58 percent by the end of this year. Even though the national government has taken socioeconomic measures to maintain the situation under control, such as the Ingreso Familiar de Emergencia (Emergency Household Income), a state assistance for poor families, and zero interest rate loans for the self-employed with minimum or low income, the great majority of Argentines has been suffering a series of crisis that in recent years have widened gaps greatly.

One half of the country’s workforce get about in an informal economy, working under the table and surviving on changas(occasional one-day job that allows for minimal daily sustenance). Besides, cartoneros/as, who live from the sales of disposed garbage items, are part of this vulnerable group. This segment is the most affected because of the direct and indirect effects of the pandemic. Moreover, social movements and civil associations with a strong identity and established history that work in slums and the most helpless zones of the country have warned that people from the most vulnerable urban areas are the most affected by the COVID-19 contagion. In relation to this, La Garganta Poderosa, an NGO that has representation in many countries of Latin America, launched last week a social media campaign #contagiásolidaridad (#infectsolidarity) to promote a collective awareness of the situation.

A diffusional space for the urgency

Olla de Mujeres (Saucepan of women) is a group formed by five girls. Only two of them knew each other before. They decided to come together after exchanging some messages through WhatsApp, and they used this channel for organizing themselves. Since April, they have been using this channel to post in their statuses a flyer with the information about the goods they need for preparing meals, along with their WhatsApp numbers. As they are very active and social, they have many WhatsApp groups, in which they share this information. The members of these groups replicate this message, building an informal network of solidarity. They receive messages from unknown people, offering supplies and help. As they have a special permit issued by the authorities and required to drive around during lockdown, they collect donations all around the city. An NGO lends them its kitchen facilities for cooking. Every Saturday, they distribute the meals to a hundred families.

Fernando is 22 years old, has many friends and many groups of friends in WhatsApp. He uses these contacts for food drives. He creates WhatsApp broadcast lists and his parents do the same, helping him to promote his campaign of food donations. Fernando and his lifelong friends cook every Saturday in the kitchen of the club where he plays volleyball. Last Saturday, they distributed more than 200 meals to people who went to a merendero, or food bank for low-income population.

Schools and WhatsApp

School teachers have a fundamental place in this network, diffusions and emergencies. Schools are one of the institutions that have deeply transformed themselves to adapt to the current situation.

Some extra data to understand the situation: the majority of the schools that are settled in popular and deprived areas of the country offer breakfast, lunch and/or afternoon snacks to their students living in vulnerable conditions. However, since on-site classes were suspended, teachers are in charge of delivering every other week a bag of food products, a measure that the national government has introduced to replace school meals and increase social assistance to these families. Along with the food provisions, teachers distribute school booklets for students to continue with their education, in order to guarantee the Pedagogical Continuity Plan. Then, communication continues via WhatsApp. “Far from other schools that can work via Google Classroom, Zoom or other platforms, our unique way of communication with families and students is via WhatsApp. In our community, families do not have neither internet access nor computers. We give them these booklets, and then we try to continue communication using WhatsApp,” says Jéssica, head of a school in the province of Buenos Aires.

However, the content of these booklets has received much criticism: the Mapuche’s Confederation (the NGO that congregates native people settled in the south of the country) reported that they were described as a vanished community, using discriminatory vocabulary, said the report. The National Ministry of Education publicly apologized to the community.

Even though browsing the governmental site educ.ar – where students and/or their parents can download these booklets – is free of charge and contents can be downloaded without consuming mobile data, access is almost impossible for families with many kids and only one mobile phone per household. “Besides, most of these parents haven´t finished their primary studies. Even if they had mobiles or computers, they wouldn’t have the digital skills for accessing to these sites and downloading the pedagogical material”, says Valeria, a social worker who uses WhatsApp to help women of impoverished communities sending them information about State health assistance for them and their kids.

Nevertheless, communication via WhatsApp largely exceeds pedagogical goals. “At the beginning, it was for school purposes, but currently we use it to share useful information that runs in other social media, such as Facebook and Instagram, which families of our school may not have access to”, explains Jéssica. So in this group formed by teachers and families, schools share information about those places where they can go for free food during the weekends (where Fernando and his friends, Olla de Mujeres and many other groups deliver meals every weekend), state assistance payment calendars and dates of food bags delivery. “We are the link between families and government”. For instance, new of a WhatsApp direct line for reporting gender and domestic violence that was launched recently by the government were shared by teachers using these WhatsApp groups.

However, it is not easy. Jéssica explains that the onsite meetings every 15 days – during which they deliver food bags – are also used for collecting data about connectivity and communication devices available to their students, in order to improve their ways of interacting with students and families and adapt practices in which the dynamics of the context is adverse for the community of the school she heads. “Seventy percent of families have prepaid mobile cards. They top-up their phones when they receive State assistance. That lasts around 10 days. Then communication is cut off.”

The pandemic in Argentina has revealed repertoires, dynamics and resistances of a ‘backstage activism’ that has WhatsApp as a main ally: for creating networks, for organizing solidarities, for coming along with kids in their educational continuity, for spreading information that is originated in other online spaces to which families of these vulnerable communities don’t have access, for reporting and asking for help. All of these are micro practices of an activism that has become different, but seemingly not less effective, during COVID-19 times. However, it is important to say that these creative uses are responses that different actors perform for collaborating with humble communities during this emergency, an emergency that has made visible more than ever before different edges of a context where resources are unequally distributed.

 

About the author

Raquel Tarullo. PhD in Social Sciences and Humanities. Lecturer and Researcher at National University of the Northwest of Buenos Aires Province (UNNOBA) and National University of San Antonio de Areco (UNSAdA). Visiting Research Fellow, Sociology Department, Goldsmiths, University of London (2019-2020). Contact: raqueltarullo@gmail.com/@unflordeviaje

 

[BigDataSur-COVID] Making Sense of the Pandemic through Data: The Italian Case

What does it mean, in everyday life, to experience the first pandemic in a datafied society? This article takes a data perspective to discuss the specificities of the Italian experience of the COVID-19 crisis.

 

by Tiziano Bonini

Forms of datafication of society during the COVID-19 pandemic have varied from country to country. The biggest concerns relating to datafication of citizens were the spread of contact tracing and notification apps and the risks these would bring to citizens’ privacy. Some suggest that people have become passively accustomed to surveillance by private multinational companies (surveillance capitalism, Zuboff 2019) but are reluctant to agree to be monitored by their country’s Ministry of Health.

In Italy, as in many other countries, many controversies have arisen around health tracking apps. In the end, the Italian app – Immuni – was released on June 2 and in 8 days it was downloaded by two million Italian citizens. While this might seem a success story, things are more complicated than that. Experts pointed out that it will need at least 30 million downloads to make the app useful for contact tracing and there are many doubts about the possibility of reaching these numbers, also because many smartphone models do not support it (as for example all iPhone models before 6s).

Debate on the Immuni app has revealed the existence of two opposing fronts: we can refer to them as the techno-solutionists on the one hand, and the techno-apocalyptics on the other. The former believe they can slow down the diffusion of contagion simply by having an app installed on their mobile phones; the latter instead reject any form of surveillance, except that coming from Facebook or Google. Yet, the importance of data during the pandemic did not emerge only during the debate on Immuni – public narrative of the lockdown period was in many ways crossed by the rhetoric of dataism, meant as a blind and unconditional trust in data.

Every evening, at 6.30 p.m., for two months, the head of the Italian Civil Protection went on television to “give numbers” about the pandemic: new healed, new contagions, new hospitalized, new deaths compared to the previous day. Despite the dubious reliability of those data (the dead, it was later discovered, were many more; the contagions were ten times as many, and Italian regions did not provide data in a homogeneous way), this press conference immediately turned into a collective ritual, an appointment not to be missed, like President Roosevelt’s fireside chats on the radio, a real “media event” (Dayan & Katz 1992): the (macabre) Pandemic Ceremony. This national ceremony was flanked, in scattered order, by other media micro-cerimonies on a local or municipal basis: this refers to the live-shows on Facebook, You Tube and Instagram of dozens of Italian mayors, who, inspired by the macabre national ceremony, every night “entertained” their fellow citizens telling about the state of the virus spread in their municipality through use of data. In this case data were employed as objective and neutral facts to convince citizens to stay at home and “flatten the curve”.

But if we stopped here, we would end up seeing only a part of the story, the one in which data were used to build a public narrative passively accepted by citizens. That’s not the case, or at least it wasn’t for everyone. Since the early days of the pandemic and lockdown, organized groups of citizens have confronted available data trying to analyze them together, drawing different conclusions from the official narrative or even producing new data. Many have opened Excel spreadsheets where they could download Civil Protection data (made available as Open Data) to try to interpret them independently.

Many others have created Facebook groups to discuss such data and their meaning. Some turned to their math friend, some dusted off their old statistical knowledge, others simply followed the home made analysis of their Facebook friends. From this point of view, we could say that lockdown represented a period of collective learning about the role of data in society and accelerated the emergence or spread of data activism, data journalism and open science practices.

On the side of data journalism, the local newspaper L’Eco di Bergamo made an important investigative work. By collecting data independently and examining those already available, it showed that the number of deaths in the province of Bergamo, one of the most affected cities in Italy by Covid-19, was almost double the official number.

On the open science and citizen science side, one of the most active groups on the examination, interpretation and sharing of data on the evolution of the pandemic in Italy was the Facebook group Dataninja, a community of journalists, citizens and researchers created in 2012 by a group of Italian journalists interested in the use of data in creating information. This community, which counts more than 3,000 members, for two months produced a large amount of data, “home made” graphs and tables, representing a collective effort to try to make sense of what was happening.

Still on the open science side, within the community of medical doctors other interesting projects related to data have emerged, such as the Giotto Movement in Modena, created by an association of young Italian family doctors with the aim of building together an electronic register (a shared excel sheet) where to collect in one place all those COVID-19 suspect patients that didn’t match the official criteria to be eligible for a COVID-19 test and taken care of by the Public Health and Hygiene Service. This need was felt by several family doctors, who, simultaneously and without consulting each other, created very similar “low technology” tools (Excel or Word sheets) to keep the situation under control. These were the first weeks of emergency and the situation on the ground was very chaotic. The project was developed in three main phases:

  1. Consultation among young doctors from various Italian regions (thanks to the network of the Giotto Movement, an association of young doctors) to define a first version of the register,
  2. A group of about 20 couples of doctors in training in General Medicine tested the instrument for a week and at the end of this week, after a mutual comparison on strengths and weaknesses, they built the final version of the register,
  3. Diffusion of the register to all family doctors, thanks to the collaboration of the Primary Care Managers of Modena, and to colleagues from all over Italy thanks to the network of doctors of the Giotto Movement who contributed to its realization.

On the side of data activism, the NGO Action Aid, since March 12, has activated a national mapping of spontaneous and institutional solidarity initiatives (such as volunteers to do shopping for the elderly in various cities), those of psychological support, fundraising, debunking fake news and dissemination of scientific data. The project is named Covid19Italia Help and consists of an interactive map in which anyone can report and insert solidarity initiatives going on the Italian territory. The creators of the project described it as a civic hacking initiative and the idea (and also a good part of the project) came from the same team that had developed the EarthQuakeCentroItalia project, a very similar civic hacking initiative that consisted of a collective effort of managing the emergence caused by the Eartquake that struck Central Italy in 2016 through the use of open data and citizen generated data.

In Bologna, Kilowatt – a working cooperative made up of different souls working in the fields of social innovation, circular economy, communication and urban regeneration, has launched the project “Passa il tempo, passa la bufera” an experiment in domestic ethnography “at a distance”, to stimulate a ritual of collective self-observation. Kilowatt collected qualitative data through online questionnaires with open-ended questions, renewed once a week for five weeks. Respondents (583 people) provided very detailed accounts of their lives during lockdown, changes in their moods and their new domestic occupations. Data collected were then translated into info-graphics and collective diaries, which gave a collective portrait of the domestic climate during the pandemic. Kilowatt’s aim was to try to keep the pulse of what was happening in our homes and in our lives, accompanying us to a new normality, going beyond the logic of statistics and using the tools of ethnography”.

I talked via email with two of the creators of the project, Anna Romani and Gaspare Caliri. They told me that the answers to the last questionnaire clearly confirmed, at the same time, both the need of others and the need for solitude, as two indivisible and both necessary feelings during the lockdown. They also noticed the fear of the respondents that nothing will change: “we often hear this, but especially in relation not only to macro issues, but also to the individual management of one’s own days, after having discovered the special texture of slow, freed time, time to lose, time for idleness, time for oneself, time for loved ones…”. According to Caliri, “the instrument of domestic ethnography worked as a detector of the so-called warm data, the Bateson Institute would say, i.e. those relational data that give meaning (intelligibility) to a complex system and the possibility of collective learning: those data where the important thing is the connection, not the point”. In other words, domestic ethnography has been employed has a “technology of the self” (Foucault 1988): the activity of taking care of oneself during lockdown went through individual generation and collective analysis of qualitative data (the diaries).

These examples are only the surface of a process of domestication of data within daily life during the pandemic and are significant because they show, at least by some social formations, the ability and willingness to exercise agency with respect to data produced by institutions and narrated by the media. These examples show the need to negotiate, appropriate, decode, rework data coming from above and produce, in some cases, new meanings of data.

The collective process of knowledge production around the virus has been largely based on the capacity of sharing and interpreting data, but what I wanted to show here is that many private and collective initiatives from civil society have taken away, at least in part, the monopoly of production, analysis and verification of data by institutions. Moreover, these examples also provide evidence that not all social formations have adhered to blind faith in data and technology as a solution to the COVID-19 crisis.

 

About the author

Tiziano Bonini is associate professor in Sociology of Media and Culture at the Department of Social, Political and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Siena, Italy. He teaches Sociology of Communication (MA), Mass Media, Digital Culture and Society (BA) and Big Data and Society (BA). His research interests include political economy of the media, platform studies, media production studies, and digital cultures.