Category: COVID-19 from the margins

[BigDataSur-COVID] The Trouble of Visualizing COVID-19 During a Nation-wide Lockdown in South Africa

By Adriaan Odendaal

As of October 3, 2020, according to BBC News’ interactive COVID-19 data visualization widget, the continent of Africa had 1,506,015 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 36,288 confirmed COVID-19 related deaths. It drew data from Johns Hopkins University and unspecified “national public health agencies.” My home country, South Africa (SA), accounts for 677,833 of these confirmed cases and 16,909 of the respective deaths—just below half of the continent’s cases of infections and deaths. I compared South Africa to the Netherlands next, having moved to Rotterdam just over a year ago. I opened the Google interactive map that appears whenever you search for anything COVID-19 related. I’m not the only one who developed an obsession with these interactive atlases of blue bubbles found everywhere from news websites to the World Health Organization (WHO) homepage. Being obsessed with data had become the big-data equivalent of so-called “doom-scrolling.” Yet, the ease with which I navigated this statistical information to get an instantaneous aestheticized overview obscured the local labor and material contexts that went into supplying the data from countries such as South Africa.

The Early COVID-days in South Africa

The first case of COVID-19 in South Africa was confirmed on Thursday the 5th of March by the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD). While I watched the digital blue circles blooming exponentially in the Netherlands throughout March, initially South Africa seemed spared. Africa remained relatively unblemished, only a constellation of small blue pin-pricks. Trying to prevent the eventual outbreak, South Africa went into a strict lockdown on March 23, 2020 and the hashtag #LockdownSA started trending to detail all the tribulations of daily life under a quasi-militarized quarantine. Shortly before the lockdown, a small Johannesburg-based data journalism team called Media Hack Collective (MHC) decided to launch its own South African COVID-19 data-visualization dashboard. The dashboard followed the organization’s core tenet of making data available to the general public in an accessible and understandable format. It tracked cases per province with a detailed breakdown of travel histories, location, age, and gender. Due to a lack of timely and effectively communicated official information during the early outbreaks, the dashboard became instantly popular.

Media Diaries – Episode 2

Despite having moved to Rotterdam, I continued working remotely for a social-impact podcasting company based in Johannesburg called Volume. During #LockdownSA one of our regular partners, the South African Media Innovation Programme, contracted us to produce a show called Media Diaries.[9] This podcast was about the daily occupational struggles of journalists reporting on the COVID-19 crisis during the national lockdown, and sourced stories through voice-notes. The show’s premise was an intriguing paradox: “What happens when our journalists, the people we expect to be out in the world for us, are forced to stay at home?” The frustrations traditional journalists faced were easy to understand. The perspective of data journalists unable to do their work during lockdown was quite different, and showed something often ignored in discussions of data reporting. In the second episode of Media Diaries, we followed the struggles of MHC in maintaining their COVID-19 dashboard.

An Obstructed Flow of COVID-19 Data

MHC, led by award-winning journalists Alastair Otter and Laura Grant, launched their COVID-19 dashboard in mid-March to a phenomenal response. “We had upwards of 300 people looking at the dashboard at any given time,” says Alastair in one of the voice-notes sent to our producers. Their approach to COVID-19 reporting was to circumvent sensationalist journalism and misinformation by taking “hard solid data” and releasing it to the public in a form that was “understandable and usable.” Achieving this goal meant using only authoritative data provided by the South African Department of Health and the NICD.

When Laura sent her first voice-notes at a later stage, she sounded more distressed. “It started off with this amazing flow of information from the NICD,” she said. “They would put it on their website every day. Now the last time they put anything on their website was… three days ago.” The floor of initial public support for project became interspersed with concerned emails. “It’s not really our fault,” Laura had to explain, “The official info is just not coming through.”

Shortly after launching their COVID dashboard, MHC partnered with the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism to assist with the collection of reliable data. The Bhekisisa Centre sent press releases from the Department of Health to MHC, who would use the printed information to provisionally update their dashboard. The trickle-down data they had to work with necessitated a complete rework of their dashboard. “Earlier this morning we heard there were 709 confirmed infections in South Africa,” Alastair said when checking in with our team, “but beyond that number, there was very little data available.” The data that was coming through was one-dimensional. “We initially started off when the first few cases of corona-virus were announced the Department of Health and NICD put out very detailed information about the ages of people, their genders, where they have traveled to, their province, etc… [W]e built the dashboard on that information thinking this would be great.” Laura was sitting in her car, dogs jumping up at the window because they expected to be taken for a walk, when she described the consequent frustrations to me. “We are really struggling to get the data that we used to get at the beginning. So, we decided to change the dashboard and add international graphs and an African one and compare South Africa to other countries… I know we can definitely get data for that.”

Suggestions from the frustrated public that MHC assist with sourcing primary data seemed untenable. “I mean, we agree in principle that people should be assisting,” said Alastair, “but it’s a capacity issue at the moment for most of us.” In a more recent email, Laura told me how much work went into processing the data. “Collecting and keeping the database up to date is the most time-consuming part—that part could not be automated because the data was being published either in PDFs or infographics on social media.” At the time, even the NCIS website’s own dashboard was stalled. “Their data is further out of date as far as we can tell,” said Alastair, “which suggests, perhaps, that there is a huge capacity issue there.”

The Overlooked Problems at the Source of the Data

The frustrations of MHC, and the struggle for reliable data updates during the lockdown, speaks to a larger issue at hand. There are few instances of fully automated data generation. There is always human labor and material conditions involved at some point in the data chain. What Episode 2 of Media Diaries shows—beyond the trials and tribulations of a small team of industrious data journalists—is that even the grand global data visualizations of Google, the BBC, and the New York Times rely on the same single local sources of information that the MHC dashboard used. In fact, both the BBC and Al Jazeera have made explicit use of data from the MHC dashboard. When you scroll down to a global overview of COVID-19 cases on Google’s dashboard, the material and labor constraints that hamper data collection in South Africa gets lost in the big sea of big data, aestheticized to encourage us to accept data as quantified facts. Our data-literacy can create dangerous false confidence when reading these dashboards and widgets. For example, Tanzania has stopped reporting data on May 8, 2020, after a final submission of 509 cases and 21 deaths. When you zoom out on most COVID-19 dashboards, Tanzania’s figures still stand at those paltry numbers. Has Tanzania, and Africa at large, been spared from the worst outbreaks of COVID-19? WHO special envoy Samba Sow warned of a “silent epidemic” in Africa due to a lack of testing on the continent, meaning data silences such as in Tanzania can also be caused by obfuscated data reporting.

Since Media Diaries came out in April, a third member, Gemma Gatticchi, joined the MHC team to alleviate the labor of keeping the dashboard updated. Fortunately, the Department of Health also started consistently releasing daily updates. However, as Laura told me in a recent email that the data updates are still unreliable. “Sometimes it would be 1 PM, sometimes it would be close to midnight. We had many late nights waiting for the updates.” It’s easy to forget about the struggles of Alastair, Laura, and the governmental staff at every level of COVID-19 data collection in South Africa, sitting at my laptop in Rotterdam, interacting with the blue dots blooming over the African continent.


Adriaan Odendaal is a content writer and web designer from Cape Town, South Africa. He is co-founder of the Rotterdam-based research & design studio internet teapot ( He currently works for an open-source start-up in Amsterdam, as well as a podcasting company from Johannesburg, South Africa. He holds a BA in Visual Studies and Sociology and an MA in Media Arts Cultures. He has a keen interest in critical and creative coding as well as digital rights. Most recently,­ he led the production of the Kill Switch podcast for Access Now as part of their #KeepItOn campaign fighting internet shutdowns.

[BigDataSur-COVID] Under Other Skies: Astronomy as a Tool to Face COVID-19-Induced Isolation in the Indigenous Village of Aldeia Verde, Brazil

By Arianna Cortesi, Claudia Magnani, Roberto Romero, Paula C.P. Silva, Sueli Maxakali, Isael Maxakali, Ana Maria R. Gomes

OtherSkies, an OAD/IAU-funded project, tackles these questions by collecting native narratives, chants, and myths about the sky that have never been written down and recorded before, in collaboration with researchers of the Indigenous Village Aldeia Verde in Brazil. Soon after the project started, all Universities and the majority of services in Brazil shut down due to the rapid diffusion of the pandemic to all the federal states. To protect the indigenous people, the federal government declared the lockdown of the communities. Even so, the first cases of COVID-19 appeared in many indigenous areas of the country, some of which, due to the absence of internet and phone connection, faced severe isolation. Aldeia Nova is one of the indigenous villages of the Maxakali people that suffered this destiny. To overcome the difficulties of communications, the International Astronomical Union (IAU)-funded project “Other Skies” was modified to grant internet connection to the village, support the independent recording and production of material on indigenous astronomy, and start a virtual gallery for sharing astronomical Maxakali knowledge and their perspective of the world.

Under Other Skies: Dialogues of Different Cosmological Paradigms

The project “Under other skies” focuses on ethno-astronomy, particularly the astronomical knowledge of the Maxakali people, an indigenous population of Brazil. The Tikmũ’ũn people, better known as Maxakali, live in one of the smallest indigenous lands in the State of Minas Gerais, Southeast Brazil, which has been completely devastated by the late colonization of the area. Despite the loss of their territory and the increasing contact with the National Society, the richness of the symbolic and ritual dimensions of their world has attracted great ethnographic interest in the last century. A deep look at the Maxakali experience in everyday life, such as in ritual sphere, immediately shows us the complexity of the Maxakali sociality and cosmology. All their knowledge and practices are made by performing shamanic rituals through which they interact with non-human agencies (the yãmiyxop spirits) that inhabit their territory, sharing feasts, chants, food, and other many practices with them. From the Maxakali perspective, we can see that there are no clear boundaries between knowledge and practice, between the ancient past and the present, or between everyday life and ritual life. Everything in their experience, even astronomical knowledge, is inserted in a space-time continuum, which is activated by the constant power of memory and through the relationship with the multiple non-human subjectivities that inhabit it.

The idea of a dialog between scientific and indigenous knowledge about the sky was born from an encounter between one of the astronomers and two indigenous researchers and sciamans (leaders) of the community. The project will be conducted in Aldeia Nova, a Maxakali Village in Minas Gerais, and involves indigenous researchers, shamans, and elders of the village collaborating with anthropologists and educators of the Federal University of Minas Gerais, and astronomers and educators of the University of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The main objective is to collect and translate native narratives, chants and myths about the sky narrated by some of the elders that have never been written down and recorded before.

IAU Office of Astronomy for Development

The project was funded by the Office of Astronomy for Development, a joint project of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) and the South African National Research Foundation (NRF) with the support of the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI). Its mission is to use astronomy to make the world a better place, reminding us that we earthlings live in a pale blue dot orbiting one of the millions of billions of stars of this amazing and expanding universe. Every year, the OAD funds several astronomy-related projects that promote sustainable development through astronomy.

The Potential Risk we Could not Imagine

One of the questions of the OAD selection form is “Describe potential risks and how you will address these?” The words we wrote to answer this question describe several obstacles, without one mention of a world pandemic. The Other Sky project was based on the idea of a dialogue, developed in workshops, meetings, encounters at the margins, that eventually never took place; neither seemed plausible in the nearest future. Yet, we couldn’t give up! So we decided to restructure the entire project. To face this situation we altered the project schedule and budget, including the acquisition of an internet radio connection for Aldeia Nova, purchases of of computers and material to record and produce films and audio in the Aldeia. We also planned to create a virtual gallery, following the example of the exhibition Mundos Indigenas at Espaço do Conhecimento of the Federal University of Minas Gerais, in Belo Horizonte. These encounters left space for independence, and the audience became global.

The Virtual Gallery and the Space of Knowledge

The “Espaço do Conhecimento” (Space of knowledge) of UFMG launched the exhibition Mundos Indígenas in December 2019, where the public was presented with ways of living, knowing, and taking care from Maxakali, Pataxoop, Xakriabá, Yanomami and Ye’kwana peoples. It showed that “the history of Brazilian indigenous people is not only one.” With the closure of museums in late March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, visits to the exhibition were suspended. The exhibition schedule was extended until July 2021, which expanded the possibility of visitation, after the reopening of the museums will be authorized. Meanwhile, Espaço do Conhecimento UFMG prepared a series of new videos to provide the public with the experience of a virtual visit to the exhibition through YouTube videos, launched on September 21. The six videos of the Virtual Visit to the Mundos Indígenas Exhibition are available to the public on the Espaço do Conhecimento UFMG channel on YouTube, alongside messages from indigenous curators and a video on the teheys of Dona Liça Pataxoop.

A Virtual Re-birth

The project Other Skies, supported and inspired by the virtual exhibition Mundos Indígenas, will also create a virtual gallery to present Maxakali astronomy. The gallery will also include images taken from the Southern Photometric Local universe Survey collaboration (S-PLUS), a Spanish-Brazilian collaboration, to map the southern sky in twelve colours. The virtual exhibition will exemplify the heterogeneity of astronomical knowledge. Through an intercultural approach, it will promote an understanding of the different astronomical paradigms, and push back against a superficial approach to science and social biodiversity. An example is the story Star Women, already available in the exhibition Mundos Indigenous. Although COVID-19 marginalized even more Indigenous communities, it created the grounding for the diffusion of their knowledge worldwide. One day we will grab our telescopes and travel up north to the silent dark skies of the Aldeia Nova, to look with different eyes at the same infinite spaces.


About the authors

Arianna Cortesi holds a PhD in astronomy and is currently a post-doc at the Observatory of Valongo in Rio de de Janeiro, Brazil. In the last several years, she has been part of several outreach projects that combine art, music, and astronomy.

Claudia Magnani holds a degree in Anthropology of the University of Bologna, Italy, and a PhD in Education from the Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil. Currently she is a high school literature teacher and an independent researcher of Amerindian ethnography, gender studies, and female shamanism. She has been studying Maxakali traditions and culture since 2014.

Roberto Romero is an ethnologist. He obtained a PhD in Social Anthropology at the National Museum and is part of the Núcleo de Antropologia Simétrica, Brazil. He has researched the Tikmũ’ũn (Maxakali) population since 2011. He is part of the association Filmes de Quintal and he is one of the organizers of, a festival of documentaries and ethnic movies of de Belo Horizonte. He served as Assistant Director of the lungometraggio ‘Yãmĩyhex: as mulheres-espírito’ (Sueli e Isael Maxakali, 2019).

Paula C. P. Silva is a designer and doctoral student in Education at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil. She has been developing ethno-design works and research among the Tikmũ’ũn since 2015. She is part of the Maxakali research group “Humm Yĩkopit (Asking the Earth),” of the Água Boa Territory, and of the “Study and Research Group on Indigenous Intercultural School Education” (GEPEEI). She has experience in graphic design projects in the areas of corporate internal communication, visual identity, and indigenous editorials.

Sueli Maxakali is a filmmaker, photographer and artist. A strong tikmũ’ũn leader, she made the films When the yãmiy come to dance (2011), Kõnã’ãg xeka: Dilúvio Maxakali (Pajé Filmes, 2016) and Yãmiyhex: women-spirit. She has participated in important film festivals throughout Brazil, such as, Tiradentes Cinema Exhibition, Olhar de Cinema and Cine Kurumin, presenting and commenting on tikmũ’ũn audiovisual productions. Together with other women in her village, she produced a book of photographs, entitled koxukxop. Sueli is also an indigenous teacher and researcher, teaching, singing, and translating songs and stories of the yãmĩyxop.

Isael Maxakali is a filmmaker and visual artist. He holds a BA in Indigenous studies from the Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil. In his films, he reveals aspects of the traditional culture of the Maxakali—their stories, songs, ceremonies and rituals, as well as the choices that these people have been making to live in a modern world. Isael works with his wife and filmmaker Sueli Maxakali. Together, with the help of the elders and shamans in their village, they record many aspects of their culture and help preserve and disseminate the values ​​of the Maxakali way of life.

Ana Maria R. Gomes received her PhD in Education at University of Bologna, Italy. She was a post-doc at the National Museum of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. Currently, she is Professor at the Faculty of Education, Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Brazil, in the PhD program Education Program for Knowledge and Social Inclusion. She is also the coordinator of the Intercultural Training Course for Indigenous Educators from 2008 to 2011 and currently part of the teaching team on Socio-Environmental Knowledge (Social Sciences). She researches cultural practices and learning in different socio-cultural contexts, ethnography, cosmopolitics, and sustainability.

[BigDataSur-COVID] Data Cudgel or how to Generate Corona-Compliance in Israel

By Alex Gekker & Anat Ben-David

With the rapid unfolding of the COVID-19 global pandemic, Israel was one of the first states outside East-Asia to impose involuntary surveillance measures as a means to combat the virus. Crucially, the government utilized the country’s permanent state of exception to bypass the parliament and deploy a hitherto classified anti-terrorism tool developed by its internal security service (Shin Bet) to track the location of coronavirus patients, identify infection-chains and notify citizens who have been in close proximity to an identified patient to self-quarantine. Despite the marked similarity to the Snowden revelations in terms of scope and granularity of data available to secret services on individuals, the extreme measures undertaken by the Israeli government were met by a legal battle ensued by a small group of activists and civil society organizations, but not by a public outcry. Rather, the majority of Israelis were willing to compromise their right to privacy for the technological protection offered against the virus, and expressed high levels of trust in the Shin Bet, even as the latter was often reluctant to take up the mantle. In this essay we draw on historian Daniel Rosenberg’s notion of “data before the fact” to reflect on how various uses of (big) data in Israel have led to compliance and confusion for the people involved.

Rosenberg suggests that data came to be a historically recognised category that is “given” (“data” means “that which is given” in Latin and thus not questioned or interrogated. Only the results coming from the data are. Recently, with the rise of massive data collection and machine learning techniques, data has further changed meaning, but retained that historically grounded sense of objectivity. This joins the tendency of computers being seen as “accurate” and “unbiased”— consider how Facebook claims that no user privacy is breeched because no humans are involved in seeing one’s personal details. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun and David Berry suggest that computer software becomes ingrained in the very language and metaphors of how we think about “thinking” today. Various data dashboards, including in combating Corona, cement the data-reflected reality rather than being tools for discussing alternatives. In the Israeli case, the discussion of possible responses to COVID-19 and their implications became entangled with the computerised data gathered on the disease’s spread, in a way that limited potential objections to the measures imposed. We show this across three distinct episodes.

Shin Bet Surveillance

After a publication by investigative journalists, the Shin Bet’s surveillance system was exposed. Called simply “the Tool” it has been in operation since 2002 and used for continuous trawling collection of all available cell-phone data from every mobile device in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Officially used for counter-terrorism and previously (officially) used only targeted surveillance on specific individuals and in relation to a case, the Tool has nonetheless been employed for digital contact tracing across the entire land and marketed as an emergency extreme measure that is a “magic bullet” solution. Specifically the “Tool” allowed avoiding the need to deploy a voluntary digital contact tracing apps as done by other democratic states. Nonetheless such a civilian, Bluetooth-based phone app was developed, failed and re-developed again to a minimal reception by the Ministry of Health. One of the central arguments against adopting this latter, privacy preserving option, was due to the fact that the Shin Bet is collecting all data anyway. Yet, being a secret government agency, the Shin Bet is reluctant to share the specifics of the data collected. Early reports indicate a 5% wide margin of error. Out of 71 thousand people required to self-quarantine based on the tool’s data in the first week of July alone, about 22 thousand appealed, claiming to be false positives, and 60% of those appeals were accepted. Overall, the data presented of the effectives of the tool was lacking, included repeated numbers in different categories, and was unreliable. Nonetheless, the appearance of efficiency supported by seemingly impressive numerical data has led to a continuing adaption of the tool instead of other alternatives.

National Compliance Index

Another use of numerical data to create compliance rather than support policy was through the deployment of a “national index”, in cooperation with renowned behavioral economist Dan Arieli’s Kayma company. The index was developed by Kayma as a single entrant to an urgent tandem presented by Israel’s National Corona Response Centre. Despite potential financial and practical concerns, the company was selected to monitor various “commercial and civilian data sources” in order to track how compliant the population is with Covid regulations. Prominent on various platforms—including on the main page of the country’s most-read news website—and asking citizens to self-report on “compliance” such as hand-washing or mask-wearing, the index generates a variety of dashboard statistics, while being extremely opaque in its data sources. As in the previous case, the numerical data, information visualizations and dashboards derived from the index were available to the citizens only in their final, “ready-made” state, such as “what is the level of compliance to the lockdown in your home city compared to other cities”? discouraging reflection and encouraging the very thing they were supposedly measuring – compliance.

Lack of Ministry of Health Data

Many of the unclarities above could have been addressed – or at least mitigated – by clear and transparent reporting of Covid-19 infections and transmissions data by the governmental body responsible, Ministry of Health (MoH). Yet, despite repeated requests, throughout the first month of pandemic the data was published by the ministry’s spokesperson as cropped images on the ministry’s Telegram channel. This required a dedicated manual input of the information by volunteers to keep track of the official numbers. Even later, with a new updated data dashboard, users could not receive numerical information and moreover each new version overwrote the previous one. Data scientist Dan Bareket who kept those previous versions manually has shown that there are gross differences between those older and newer versions.

Those episodes come together to showcase how data can be wielded as a cudgel rather than a precise tool: collected through undisclosed means and used to create popular compliance, suppressing discussions of measures or alternatives.


About the authors

Alex Gekker is Assistant Professor in New Media and Digital Culture at the University of Amsterdam. He writes about how sociotechnical systems are designed to influence users, and his research touches upon maps and surveillance, quantification, the datafication of society, the experience economy, and interface critique. He has co-edited two Open Access books, Time for Mapping: Cartographic Temporalities (Manchester University Press, 2018) and Playful Mapping in the Digital Age (Institute of Network Cultures, 2016). In the past he has worked in a variety of media positions, as journalist, editor, and spokesperson.

Anat Ben-David is Senior Lecturer in the department of Sociology, Political Science and Communication at the Open University of Israel.

[BigDataSur-COVID] Fuera de Alcance: Educación a Distancia en Zonas Rurales Peruanas Durante la Pandemia

Out of Reach: Distance Learning in Peruvian Rural Areas During the Pandemic This blog post aims to analyze the actions carried out by the Peruvian government regarding distance education and contrast them with the uses and practices of technology in Andean rural communities. Likewise, it problematizes digital inclusion and exclusion that is reflected through the digital divide: who is included and who is excluded from the Peruvian public school in the new normal setting.


Por Karla Zavala Barreda

La cuarentena y las medidas de distanciamiento social han afectado el desenvolvimiento de las actividades escolares a nivel nacional. En marzo, luego de aplazar el inicio del año escolar por dos semanas, el Ministerio de Educación desplegó el plan de enseñanza a distancia ‘Aprendo en Casa’. La estrategia, a través de señal televisa y radial abierta, busca reemplazar la educación presencial a través de sesiones de aprendizajes adaptadas a dichos medios. La difusión del contenido también se apoya de las radios comunitarias. No obstante, esta estrategia no incluye a los centros poblados, donde hay un nivel muy bajo de conectividad, y donde se encuentran comunidades que están fuera del alcance de la señal de los medios masivos y de la cobertura de internet.

En el Perú, la educación rural tiene un modelo de alternancia donde los estudiantes asisten intermitentemente a clases. Luego del anuncio del inicio de la cuarentena obligatoria, dichos estudiantes regresaron a sus hogares, los cuales en muchos casos no cuentan con medios o conectividad para acceder a los contenidos de Aprendo en Casa. Cabe preguntar entonces, ¿cuál es el estado de los estudiantes en comunidades rurales en el país que ha implementado una de las cuarentenas más estrictas a nivel mundial?

Educación a Distancia en Zonas Rurales

Frente a esta problemática de acceso al contenido escolar, se anunció la adquisición de un millón de tabletas a ser repartidas a los estudiantes y maestros de áreas rurales clasificadas en los quintiles 1 y 2 de pobreza. En este contexto, cabe recordar que el gobierno peruano ha implementado desde hace treinta años programas de compra equipos informáticos en el sector educación, tales como Una Laptop por Niño, proyecto Huascarán, Jornada Escolar Completa, entre otros. Sin embargo, estas adquisiciones no ayudaron a amortiguar la necesidad de educación a distancia que emergió durante esta crisis sanitaria, convirtiéndose así en el gran elefante blanco del que poco se ha discutido.

Asimismo, la solución ofrecida para acortar la brecha de conectividad de las zonas rurales es la inclusión de tabletas con chip y cargadores solares. Pero sin señal satelital de internet en el área donde usarán la tableta, el chip no podrá conectarse a ningún lado. Esta coyuntura es un recordatorio de la materialidad de la infraestructura digital. Depende de cables, de satélites, de proveedores y operadores para que la señal llegue a quienes están fuera de alcance. La brecha digital entre zonas urbanas y rurales es abismal. La conectividad en áreas rurales no alcanza más del 20%, a esto se suma que el servicio ofrecido es de baja calidad, y la velocidad de conexión es lenta.

Al implementar el aislamiento social obligatorio, las zonas rurales fueron expuestas a un grado mayor de vulnerabilidad al no contar con infraestructura y conectividad en sus hogares. Esta situación se agrava en un país donde el gobierno apenas conoce a la realidad de la población. Mientras el Ministerio de Educación señala que el 94% de los estudiantes escolares está accediendo a los contenidos de Aprendo en Casa, la Defensoría del Pueblo –institución nacional que defiende y promueve los derechos de las personas y la comunidad– indica que en provincias el poco acceso a educación durante la pandemia ha incrementado el número de deserción escolar. Por ejemplo, en Cerro de Pasco, más de 7000 estudiantes no acceden a la educación a distancia. Situación similar ocurre en una de las regiones más pobres del país, Huánuco, donde más del 30% de escolares tampoco cuenta con acceso.


Prácticas desde la Periferia

A casi dos meses de la clausura del año escolar, las tabletas aún no llegan a los destinatarios. Y aunque llegaran, la distribución de dichos dispositivos no resolverá las dificultades de conectividad y acceso a información. Es en este escenario donde acciones como las del alcalde de Corani, localidad de Puno, al sur de país, llaman la atención, no solo porque contrató la instalación antenas satelitales para brindar conexión a cinco comunidades rurales en extrema pobreza, sino por el razonamiento detrás de esta acción: proveer acceso libre a internet. Mientras los sistemas digitales continúen absorbiendo y embebiendo actividades sociales, la infraestructura de conexión efectivamente determina y restringe cómo los usuarios se comunican y acceden a información. Es por estas razones que el acceso a internet se ha declarado como un derecho humano, ya que no solo ayuda a difundir contenidos educativos sino también a acceder a servicios del estado sin necesidad de desplazamiento geográfico, y conocer los derechos.

Al optar por la transmisión de sesiones de aprendizaje a través de medios de comunicación e internet, el gobierno peruano no garantiza el derecho de acceso a la educación a quienes no cuenten con los medios necesarios para acceder a dicho contenido. Al condicionar dicho acceso, se incrementa la vulnerabilidad de poblaciones rurales en extrema pobreza. En contraste, lo sucedido en Corani no solo beneficia a los estudiantes, sino también a los miembros de la comunidad, que pueden acceder a información respecto a los bonos repartidos durante la pandemia, y también a los estudiantes universitarios o de carreras técnicas, que gracias a este servicio pueden conectarse a sus clases virtuales.

A la vez, se hace frente a una problemática que pasa desapercibida: la compra de paquetes de datos móviles. Durante la cuarentena, miembros de comunidades rurales adquieren semanalmente paquetes de datos para que sus hijos puedan acceder a la educación a distancia. Imágenes de niños buscando señal en la cima de las montañas se han compartido en las redes sociales sin cuestionar quién cubre el costo de esa conexión. En otras palabras, la educación que antes era gratuita se constituye como un costo adicional al estar mediada.

Por otro lado, nuevamente la materialidad de los contenidos digitales necesita ser abordada. Internet no está compuesta de solo bits y señales que fluyen de manera invisible en el aire. El contenido audiovisual demanda el uso muchos datos móviles, y a su vez esta transmisión de datos depende de infraestructura que provea conexión. Si contrastamos la penetración de celulares se puede observar que más de un 85% de hogares rurales cuenta con un dispositivo móvil (INEI, 2020). Sin embargo, solo un 5.9% tiene acceso a internet. Poniendo este dato en el contexto actual y los retos que el distanciamiento social presenta, cabe cuestionar qué tanto se toman en consideración los celulares en la difusión, diseño, y desarrollo de la educación a distancia. Por ejemplo, si el ancho de banda no es óptimo, ¿hay versiones lite (bajo uso de datos, poco uso de imágenes, etc.) de las páginas y apps educativas? ¿Por qué no se toma política de mobile-first como en otros países?

Estos interrogantes abren el diálogo para dejar de privilegiar la adquisición de tecnología de punta y el uso de nuevos medios en estrategias nacionales sin tomar en cuenta el ensamblaje socio-técnico que permite la conexión a Internet. En el Perú hay muchas áreas que siguen fuera de alcance, y no es coincidencia que sean los mismos espacios geográficos donde se encuentran las comunidades rurales. Por otro lado, decisiones como la compra de tabletas sin una propuesta íntegra hace evidente la falta de planes sostenibles en el tiempo para la implementación de iniciativas tecnológicas, que si bien buscan cerrar las brechas digitales, no parecen tomar en cuenta la realidad de las diferentes regiones del país.


Karla Zavala Barreda holds an MA in Media Arts Cultures, and is a PhD student at University of Amsterdam in the Department of Media Studies. Her research focuses on software studies, interface criticism, game studies, algorithmic literacy, and critical design. She is interested in the intersection between software, design, and education. She tweets at @karlazavala.

[BigDataSur-COVID] Pandemic Paternalism: A Reflection on Indigenous Data from Aotearoa

By Donna Cormack & Tahu Kukutai

There are estimated to be more than 300 million Indigenous people in the world, spanning every continent, each with diverse histories and socio-political contexts. The shared experiences of imperialism and colonialism have profoundly impacted Indigenous peoples’ health and well-being, producing enduring disparities in most territories. COVID-19 has sharpened structural inequalities, and Indigenous peoples in many countries have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, either directly (through infection and fatalities) or indirectly, by way of economic losses, social disruption, and discrimination.1 Indigenous peoples have also experienced pandemic-related data injustices. Focusing on Aotearoa (New Zealand), this essay explores how hegemonic knowledge production practices have resulted in inequitable access to data about COVID-19 by Indigenous Māori communities. This inequity is situated within the wider context of ongoing colonialism, epistemic injustice, and the continuing resistance of Indigenous peoples.

As a member of the so-called “Digital 9” network, Aotearoa is considered one of the world’s most digitally-advanced nations. Over the last decade, the government has eagerly embraced the use of “big data” in decision-making. Stats NZ, the national statistics office, is home to the world-leading Integrated Data Infrastructure (IDI), which links de-identified microdata about people and households from government datasets. Aotearoa is also one of few countries with a system-wide approach to collecting multiple measures of ethnicity and Indigeneity for use in public policy. Such data are used to monitor the government’s obligations to Māori under the country’s founding document, the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi.2 Given these features, one might expect Aotearoa to be an exemplar when it comes to producing high-quality, timely and relevant COVID-19 data about (and for) Indigenous peoples. Unfortunately, this has not been the case.

Early on in the pandemic, it became apparent that ethnicity data was not being routinely collected or reported for all COVID-19 related activities or outcomes,3 despite ethnicity data collection being mandatory in the health sector for more than 20 years.4 Initially, no ethnicity data was reported in the Ministry of Health’s daily updates. While cases are now reported by ethnicity for the six major ethnic groupings, this granularity has not carried over to other key indicators. Six months on, Māori data are still not reported in a way that readily allows for stratified analysis by other variables such as age and region. A lack of complete data reporting makes it challenging for Māori organisations and providers engaged in the pandemic response to make detailed assessments of how COVID-19 is affecting their communities.

Māori carry an elevated risk of harm, while being excluded from decision-making to mitigate that harm—an all-too familiar situation. There is a long-standing colonial predilection for seeing Indigenous peoples as objects to be known—never as experts in their own right. We should not be surprised that inequitable knowledge production practices are being replayed in the context of COVID-19 data. As Carroll, Rodriguez-Lonebear & Martinez argue, settler colonial governments routinely produce Indigenous data that are not fit to meet the priorities of Indigenous communities. Such data tends to be of lower quality than non-Indigenous data, since they are inconsistently measured, difficult to access, and controlled by non-Indigenous people and systems. All of these issues have prevailed in Aotearoa, to some extent, during COVID-19.

It is also clear that the substantial investment in data linkage and integration, ostensibly to inform government decision-making, has failed to produce reliable data for Māori decision-makers. High-quality, disaggregated Māori and iwi (tribal) data was needed in near real-time to guide immediate responses at local, regional, and national levels. For many iwi and Māori communities this data did not materialize, even as they repeatedly demonstrated innovative modes of distributed leadership and a deep capacity to care for each other. Instead, Māori largely relied on their own local intelligence networks and collective knowledge of kin relations, beyond the purview of government agencies and their data systems.

Issues of trust, control, and authority also bubbled to the surface in the pandemic response. To date, there has been little meaningful engagement with principles of Māori Data Sovereignty5 in decision-making through the data systems for the pandemic response, including the COVID-19 tracer app released by the Ministry of Health.6 This lack of engagement persists, despite an increasing number of government agencies purporting to support Maori data sovereignty, including a Stats NZ-led initiative to implement a Māori data governance model across the official government data system. In times of crisis, those in positions of power often default to the status quo. State institutions seem to find it difficult to accept that Māori have technical expertise and deep contextual knowledge that would be beneficial to data systems and practices during the pandemic. As we continue to move through the pandemic, the government needs to shift its focus from centralized data systems that aid top-down policy-making to a more nimble and empowering approach that supports Māori-controlled data systems and locally-defined interventions.

The COVID-19 response in Aotearoa has revealed the persistence of forms of epistemic exclusion.7 Māori knowers and knowledges have been marginalized, and unjust data practices continue to privilege the priorities of the dominant Pākehā (NZ European) population and wilfully ignore Māori data rights.8 It is an important reminder that systems designed for settler colonial goals will work in service of those goals. There remains an urgent need for Indigenous data governance and community-controlled data infrastructure that will serve broader Māori goals of self-determination.



1 Stephanie Carroll Rainie, Desi Rodriguez-Lonebear, Akee Randall, Annita Lucchesi and Jennifer Rai Richards, ‘Indigenous data in the COVID-19 pandemic: Straddling erasure, terrorism and sovereignty’, Items (11 June 2020); Joseph Keawe’aimoku Kaholokula, Raynald A. Samoa, Robin E. S. Miyamoto, Neal Palafoxand Sheri-Ann Daniels, ‘COVID-19 special column: COVID-19 hits native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities the hardest’, Hawaii Journal of Health & Social Welfare, 79(5) (2020); Tamara Power, Denise Wilson, Odette Best, Teresa Brockie, Lisa Bourque Bearskin, Eugenia Millender and John Lowe, ‘COVID-19 and Indigenous Peoples: An imperative for action’, Journal of Clinical Nursing 29 (15-16) (2020).

2 Papaarangi Reid and Bridget Robson, ‘Understanding health inequities’ in Briget Robson (ed), Hauora: Māori standards of Health IV. A study of the years 2000-2005, Wellington: Te Rōpū Rangahau Hauora a Eru Pomare, 2000, pp. 3-10.

3 Concerns were raised with the government and in the media about the availability and quality of Māori data in the pandemic response (e.g.,

4 Donna Cormack and M. McLeod. Improving and maintaining quality in ethnicity data collection: issues for the health and disability sector, Wellington: Te Rōpū Rangahau Hauora a Eru Pomace, 2010.

5 Māori Data Sovereignty advocates for Māori rights in relation to Māori data, including the conceptualisation, management and control of Māori data in line with Māori practices and protocols. It is an expression of broader Indigenous sovereignty. See and Raymond Lovett, Vanessa Lee, Tahu Kukutai, Donna Cormack, Stephanie Carroll Rainie and Jennifer Walker, ‘Good data practices for indigenous data sovereignty and governance’, in Angela Daly, Katie Devitt and Monique Mann (eds) Good Data, Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2019, pp. 26–36.

6 See, for example, ‘COVID-19 digital contact tracing risky for Māori technologist’ ( ),‘COVID-19 tracer app: what does it mean for Māori?’, (

7 Gaile Pohlaus Jr., ‘Varieties of epistemic injustice’, in Ian James Kidd, José Medina and Gaile Pohlaus Jr. (eds) The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice, Oxford Routledge, 2017, pp. 13–27.

8 This draws on Nancy Tuana’s concept of ‘willful ignorance’. See Nancy Tuana, ‘The speculum of ignorance: The women’s health movement and epistemologies of ignorance’, Hypatia, 21(4) (2006).


About the authors 

Donna Cormack (Kāi Tahu, Kāto Mamoe) is a teacher and researcher with joint positions at Te Kupenga Hauora Māori, University of Auckland and Te Rōpū Rangahau Hauora a Eru Pomare, University of Otago, Aotearoa. Her work focuses on Māori health, racism, and Māori data sovereignty. She is a member of Te Mana Raraunga (Māori Data Sovereignty Network) and Te Rōpū Whakakaupapa Urutā (National Māori Pandemic Group). She is committed to critical, decolonial research practices and approaches that support Māori self-determination.

Tahu Kukutai (Ngāti Tiipa, Ngāti Kinohaku, Te Aupōuri) is Professor of Demography at the National Institute of Demographic and Economic Analysis, Aotearoa New Zealand. Tahu specialises in Māori and indigenous demographic research, and has written extensively on issues of Māori population change, official statistics, and ethnic and racial classification. Tahu is a founding member of the Māori Data Sovereignty Network Te Mana Raraunga and the Global Indigenous Data Alliance. She has co-edited Indigenous data sovereignty: Toward an agenda (ANU Press, 2016) and Indigenous data sovereignty and policy (Routledge, 2020). She was previously a journalist.

[BigDataSur-COVID] Disrupting “business as usual”: COVID-19 and platform labour

By Jelke Bosma, Eva Mos & Niels van Doorn

Things are bad right now and they will probably get worse in the future. Once the global pandemic caused by COVID-19 is finally under control, the afterlife of this public health crisis is likely to have a devastating impact on our national and local economies for years to come. But not everyone will be affected in the same way and to the same extent. We have already witnessed how the pandemic has brought long-standing inequalities with respect to income and wealth distribution into sharp relief. Some social groups have access to the resources (e.g. time, space, capital, influence) necessary to weather this crisis, or even make a profit from it, while many others scramble to protect their lives and livelihoods. In many ways, COVID-19 intensifies and accelerates these inequalities and will ultimately push them to a breaking point, a point that even conservative governments have been trying to steer clear of by introducing economic rescue plans.

Importantly, the ongoing platformization of labour and livelihoods embodies a similar logic of intensification and acceleration. While the term “disruption” has been overused—and poorly describes the economic and social impacts that platforms like Uber, Airbnb, or Deliveroo are having—we nevertheless think it is safe to say that these impacts are significant. Platform companies are reorganizing how people work and make a living, and how citizens and their governments manage and take care of others. Emerging in the wake of the 2008 recession, they have exacerbated the unequal distribution of opportunities and risks along lines of class, gender, race, and nationality—even when they claim to empower working people.

Over the past few weeks it has become clear that things are no longer ‘business as usual’ for these companies, as they are not only facing new challenges but seizing opportunities that have arisen from the current crisis. Meanwhile, we are seeing new local platform-based initiatives springing up, driven by networks of citizens as well as private organizations aiming to assist the most vulnerable members of their communities.

Various news outlets have reported that the popularity of on-demand delivery services has grown massively in cities across the globe, especially in large metropolitan areas now dealing with increasingly severe lockdowns.1 In New York City, for instance, couriers for food delivery platforms like DoorDash and Caviar are facing an ambivalent situation. Whilst workers realize that their services are more needed than ever, at the same time they are worried about their health and safety because these platform companies offer no proper protections or insurances to independent contractors.2 While many workers take pride in their job and half-jokingly praise the empty streets in Manhattan, they also feel they should not have to invest in protective gear. Quite a few couriers warn that social distancing is often impossible when waiting at a restaurant with other delivery workers.

Although most delivery companies have by now arranged their own financial assistance programs for couriers who get infected or are required to self-quarantine, these initiatives generally offer relief up to just 14 days and require them to submit documentation that is difficult to obtainin times of crisis.3 With such high application thresholds, it is unclear how many couriers have gained access to these emergency funds, which appear to be little more than a public relations strategy.

Beyond these limited reactive measures, which force couriers to keep working until they are physically or legally unable to work, companies like Uber, DoorDash, and Deliveroo continue to disavow responsibility for their workforce by fighting reclassification legislation that would force them to provide a more comprehensive safety net. Instead, Uber’s CEO has recently petitioned the US Federal government to step in and provide the protections America’s new first responders now need more than ever.4 In fact, he recently got what he wanted, which may have negative implications in the future.

The abovementioned companies, in tandem with Amazon, are primarily focused on expanding their delivery markets by further rolling out and diversifying their outsourced logistical services. NYC’s ride-hailing industry is taking a big hit due to COVID-19, which is also wreaking havoc on the restaurant and hospitality industry.5 In response, drivers and restaurant workers are turning to delivery platforms to salvage part of their income, while Uber and Amazon are exploring the possibility of delivering test kits in the near future.6 Uber and Lyft are also trying to capitalize on an increased need for the private transportation of vulnerable people and critical goods through their Uber Health and LyftUp initiatives, respectively.7

Meanwhile, DoorDash is partnering with NYC’s government to deliver food to “medically fragile students,” and has also launched a “package of commission relief and marketing support” for new and existing partner restaurants.8 DoorDash is investing heavily in COVID-induced market growth. The company allows new restaurants to sign up for free and pay no commissions for 30 days, and it creates priority access for restaurant workers looking to start as Dashers. Across the Atlantic, the situation in Amsterdam and Berlin looks a bit different. While delivery companies in these cities are also signing up scores of restaurants that have had to close their doors to dining customers, couriers working for Deliveroo, TakeAway, and/or Uber Eats are not yet seeing a similarly high boost in orders. Neither are they getting the tips or bonus incentives one may hope for during this crisis.

In Amsterdam, couriers who have a financial buffer are staying home as much as possible, particularly students for whom the pay-outs are not worth the risk. Still, the streets continue to fill with food delivery workers, many of whom are immigrants with little choice but to keep working regardless of how bad the circumstances get. Other sources of income have mostly been discontinued and, like their peers in NYC, they are only receiving standard emails and notifications from platform companies warning them to keep their distance and fulfil the logistical promise of contact-free delivery. That this promise is a fantasy becomes painfully clear when picking up an order at an otherwise closed McDonald’s restaurant, where more than a handful of waiting couriers converge around the door each time it opens wide enough to push the next bag of fast food through.

Another thing we are not yet seeing in European cities is the kind of crisis-driven service diversification and public-private partnerships that platform companies are currently experimenting with in the US This might soon change, however, as Deliveroo, JustEat, and Uber are allegedly all in conversation with the British Government about providing delivery support to elderly and vulnerable people.9 Due to the conjunction of an increased public need for logistical solutions and a decreased demand for ride-hailing services across Europe, Uber may be looking for similar ways to reallocate its drivers in other countries.

Ride-hailing is not the only segment of the gig economy to be negatively impacted by COVID-19. Due to mandatory social distancing and home quarantine measures, domestic cleaners working through platforms such as Handy and Helpling are losing most of their income. In the Netherlands, for instance, Helpling bookings are down 40% and the cancellation rate is expected to rise to 50-60%.10 Cleaners in Amsterdam—mostly immigrants—are facing difficult times, since most of their clients have asked them to stay away until further notice. One cleaner said she lost about 1,200 euros over the last two weeks and is now fully dependent on her partner’s income. When asked whether she had checked her eligibility for financial assistance—which the Dutch government recently made available to independent contractors hit by the COVID-19 crisis—she admitted having no idea such a rescue program existed, let alone if she would qualify. Her response highlights the vulnerability of migrant gig workers, who often do not master the native language and have trouble accessing information pertinent to their livelihood. Even when access is obtained, navigating the red tape in a foreign bureaucracy can be exceedingly difficult.

In conclusion, the pandemic is impacting the gig economy in two significant ways. First, it accelerates the ascendency of on-demand delivery as the dominant and most rapidly expanding service market, at the expense of ride-hailing and domestic cleaning. Secondly, it intensifies gig platforms’ experimentation with public-private partnerships and forms of service provision that cater to special needs populations. By seeking new ways to support the social reproduction of vulnerable consumer groups during a time of crisis, while continuing to discard the reproductive struggles of their workforce, platform companies are leveraging this public health crisis in a bid to become increasingly infrastructural. That is, COVID-19 generates a state of exception that offers companies a window of opportunity to test-drive their desired scenario of becoming privatized digital utilities that control and monetize critical data flows.11 The question that remains is, to what extent will this state of exception become the rule?

Jelke Bosma is a PhD candidate in the Department of Media Studies, University of Amsterdam. His research is part of the project Platform Labor, funded by the European Research Council, which investigates dynamics of value on Airnb. He has a background in Urban Studies and his research interests include platform urbanism, housing and urban theory. He tweets at @jelkejelke.

Eva Mos is a PhD candidate working in the Platform Labor project at the University of Amsterdam. With a BA and MA in Sociology, Eva traces and studies intersections between welfare state transformation and the platform economy. She does so through ethnographic study of post-welfare platforms operating in Amsterdam and Berlin. She tweets at @EvaMos5.

Niels van Doorn is Assistant Professor of New Media & Digital Culture at the University of Amsterdam. He is also the Principal Investigator of the European Research Council-funded Platform Labor research project (2018-2023). His current work focuses on the platformization of labor and social reproduction in post-welfare societies.



1 Tyler Sonnemaker, ‘Instacart Plans to Add 300,000 Additional Workers as Demand Surges for Online Delivery’, Business Insider, 23 March 2020,; Sean Captain, ‘What It’s like to Be a Delivery Worker in the COVID-19 Era’, FastCompany, 24 march 2020,; Alina Selyukh, ‘From Grocery Stores To Pizza Delivery, Some Companies Are On A Hiring Spree’,, 24 March 2020,

2 Kate Conger, Adam Satariano and Mike Isaac, ‘Pandemic Erodes Gig Economy Work’, The New York Times, 4 April 2020,

3 Dara Kerr, ‘Gig Workers Say Sick Pay for Coronavirus Is Hard to Come By’, CNET, 26 March 2020,

4 Edward Ongweso Jr, ‘Uber Asks US Government to Give Its Workers Health Insurance’, Vice, 23 March 2020,

5 Sean Captain, ‘What It’s like to Be a Delivery Worker in the COVID-19 Era’, FastCompany, 24 march 2020,; Austa Somvichian-Clausen, ‘How NYC’s Restaurant Industry Is Surviving amid Coronavirus Closures’, TheHill, 20 March 2020,

6 Sarah Emerson, ‘Amazon and Uber Suggest Delivering Coronavirus Testing Kits. Gig Workers Are Worried’, Medium, 20 March 2020,

7 ‘Uber Considers Med Delivery As Riders Plummet’, PYMNTS.Com, 20 March 2020,; ‘Supporting Our Community’, Lyft, 20 March, 2020,

8 @NYCMayor, ‘We’re also partnering with @DoorDash to get food to the homes of medically fragile students. No child will go hungry. Not on our watch.’, Twitter post, 21 March, 1:22 AM,; Tony Xu, ‘Supporting Local Businesses and Communities in a Time of Need,’ DoorDash, 17 March 2020,

9 Rowland Manthorpe, ‘Coronavirus: Takeaway Firms JustEat and Deliveroo in Talks with Government on Providing Care Packages to Elderly,’ Sky News, 16 March 2020,

10 Hella Hueck, ‘De Werkster Is Ineens Niet Meer Nodig’, The Financial Times, 23 February 2020,

11 Julie Yujie Chen and Jack Linchuan Qiu, ‘Digital Utility: Datafication, Regulation, Labor, and DiDi’s Platformization of Urban Transport in China,’ Chinese Journal of Communication 12, 3 (July 3, 2019).

[BigDataSur-COVID] When Health Code becomes Health Gradient: Safety or Social Control?

“Please show your Health Code.” Almost all public places in China have posted such requests at the entrances nowadays. Health Code, a three color-based application, is rolled out to control people’s movements and curb the coronavirus’s spread. A local government then proposed a Gradient Health Code to rank citizens based on smoking, sleeping, and medical records.

English translation by Giulia Polettini – Read in Chinese

by Yiran Zhao

“Please show your health code”, a few months after the spread of Covid-19, this request is attached on the entrance of almost all public places in China. A health code that is available through Alipay [a payment platform spreadly used in China] , through programs like Wechat [the app number one in China, literaly used to do anything, from blogging, instant messaging to ordering food, booking a flight, paying etc…] and local apps or other platforms and that it can be obtained only after that the government service platform has acquired your name surname, id number and phone number. A green code, means that you are free to go. A yellow or red code, means different levels of risk to contracting the new Coronavirus.

Authority, means ownership

After the validation of your identity, your personal health code situation can be shown in a few seconds. The logic at its base follows factors as your movements history, the permanence time in a risky area, as well as the relationships with potential carriers, in order to evaluate people level of hazard, though the specific algorithm hasn’t been published yet.

While we think that the classification operated by the staff of social medias is based on the information filled in by individuals, interests and precise personal behaviour that are constantly fed, the health code emerges instead as another new type of control system: for which you do not need any autonomy to fill out or engage. The birth of the health code can’t be found in the moment you authorize it, but before that. Also, the environment it uses does not follow your abitual actions but it is instead a civil obligation with a mandatory nature: “Without a green code you cannot enter”.

Focault called discipline the politic of power, by establishing the relationship between this discipline and the rules he created the value of power. To this extent, the debate on the question of individual privacy and safety, takes the right to health safety and it transfer its target to the individual person, driving it on a panoramic operational model.

Apart from hospitals and public transportations, also some big companies or even small private groups and forums, started to use the green health code to develop their own social duty, along with the safeguard of the security of their event attendees. The green code symbolize a decentralized and panoramic power model.

Data can be wrong too

When the access to the network can be viewed as a kind of human right, it is very difficult to accurately identify marginalized people’s position drifting outside the data. Those who live in impoverished areas, or the elderly, who don’t know how to own and generate a health code, will be rejected by public transportation and in other building. Also the display and tracking of the regions mainly rely on phone numbers, but the name identity registration in phone numbers took place earlier than the Internet era, so sometimes the problem is that the person tracked by the phone number do not correspond to the original registered person. As for the rating of risk level and division of the regions, it is even more difficult to handle: when Beijing is divided into orange areas, then locating people living in adjacent areas is closely related to the level of accuracy of the position based on the cellular stations sites, wifi coverage, GPS and Bluetooth.

What is more costly than wrong data is that there is no manual to guide you how to change your status. After being classified as orange, all you can do is to spend the quarantine time staying at home. The inability to self-prove the wrong data itself overlaps with the authority status of these data.

In this picture the individual health code value states a 88/100 grade corresponding to a green health code, calculated on a value resulting from the number of steps taken, the number of cigarettes smoked, the amount of alcohol assumed and the hours of sleep reached in one day by its owner.


In this picture the company/group health code value states a 78/100 grade corresponding to a light green health code, calculated on a value resulting from the actions of the company employees such as the number of steps taken, the number of hours slept, the rate of yearly health check-ups taken and the rate of chronicle diseases, contracted by the employees, that were contained.

Health lies beyond 3 colors

On May 22nd, the Health Commission of Hangzhou municipality, where Alibaba is located, envisaged, through electronic medical records, health checkups and other related data, to set up a personal health gradient index, ranked from 0 to 100, and released a collective appraise of healthy groups within corridors, communities, and enterprises. Although this was only an official plan, it still has been enough for people to be amazed by the health code.
After that, to manage the public health the privacy right is crossed and [after], being labelled with the “three colors” to ease its management, it is also possible that the trend may go on with “progress”, “competitivity”, and “performance” gradients. Will the health privacy data of “chromatic gradient” be spread by a wider range commercial capitalism? What kind of “inequality” will the employee health data cause?
We have to admit the possibility that after the new crown pneumonia, people have begun to adapt to this exceptional state and habitually transfer personal privacy interactions for big data to take over control. It may be possible that the existence of “people” itself will also lie in the spectrum of the chromatic gradient, labelled with the pattern of (R, G, B) [international color model used by most devices].


About the author

Yiran Zhao lived in China for almost twenty years and then moved to Taiwan to get a Bachelor’s degree. Now she is in the Netherlands as a Research Master student in Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam.

[BigDataSur-COVID] 走向渐变的健康码:这是安全,还是控制?

“Please show your Health Code.” Almost all public places in China have posted such requests at the entrances nowadays. Health Code, a three color-based application, is rolled out to control people’s movements and curb the coronavirus’s spread. A local government then proposed a Gradient Health Code to rank citizens based on smoking, sleeping, and medical records.

Read in English

by Yiran Zhao


















About the author

Yiran Zhao lived in China for almost twenty years and then moved to Taiwan to get a Bachelor’s degree. Now she is in the Netherlands as a Research Master student in Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam.

[BigDataSur-COVID] COVID Data on the Fringes: the Scottish story

by Angela Daly


COVID hit at a febrile time more generally for the United Kingdom in the context of its exit from the European Union and ongoing issues over the devolved nations, particularly Northern Ireland with its land border with the Republic, and Scotland, both of which had voted to remain in the EU during the 2016 referendum. Scotland had in 2014 its own referendum on independence from the UK, which was won, albeit fairly narrowly, by the ‘No’ side. While a pro-Brexit right-wing Conservative government rules in London, the devolved administration in Edinburgh is led by the centre-left Scottish National Party (SNP) government and first minister Nicola Sturgeon.

However, when the pandemic first hit the UK in the early months of 2020 there was no discernible difference in approach between the Scottish Government and the UK Government. In March 2020 both Scotland the wider UK imposed lockdowns later than in other European countries and in mid-March both abandoned manual contact tracing around the same time that big tech firms such as Palantir were invited to meetings with the UK government. Later that month, NHSX (the English public health service unit tasked with setting policy and best practice for digital technologies and data in health) started developing a contact tracing app amid cries of digital triumphalism and technodeterminism from the Johnson administration in London that we could digitise our way out of the pandemic.

Health is a devolved power in the UK, so the Scottish Government has full responsibility for health policy in Scotland. In May we began to see divergence between Scotland the wider UK on pathways out of lockdown (Scotland has generally taken a more cautious approach to this issue than the UK government) and also on data, with the publication of the Test, Trace, Isolate, Support policy. It signalled the relaunch of Scotland’s own contact tracing scheme, foregrounding manual contact tracing which may then be supplemented by a ‘web-based’ digital ‘tool’, pointedly not an app.

But data in the context of COVID is not just contact tracing and apps, even though they have been the focus for significant debate and advocacy. The data which government releases and restrains about COVID infections and prevalence is also key to informing political debates and personal choices, and the situation in Scotland presents a complex picture of the tensions between health, the economy and politics both at the local level and as a snapshot of more global tensions in the pandemic response.

Contact tracing and the app

Scotland’s (belated) approach to contact tracing is one of the most prominent examples of its divergence with the UK central government on COVID data policy. From May Scotland set up its own contact tracing system, building capacity in its public healthcare service (NHS), in contrast to the outsourcing of this service to private companies that has occurred in England. The Scottish Government also expressed its reservations with the NHSX app and the lack of consultation with devolved administrations. However it still came as a surprise in August when the Scottish Government announced that it was launching a contact tracing app and would be adopting the Republic of Ireland’s model and software, developed by Irish company Nearform. The Northern Irish administration has also adopted this model which makes sense given political and geographical reasons, principally the land border with the Republic. The Scottish Government’s decision to adopt the app is more overtly political, inasmuch as its land border is with England rather than Ireland. However the RoI app is reasonably privacy-protecting through its adoption of the Google-Apple app protocol and decentralised design, purpose limited and already has a track record of functioning reasonably well, the same which cannot be said of the original NHSX app. Even the NHSX app’s current incarnation, released after the Scottish app, still seems to be suffering from malfunctions.

The Scottish Government may have adopted the RoI app for politically pragmatic reasons, but it leaves the nation in a position where it has followed the lead of another nation-state (Republic of Ireland) rather than its own central government in London, leading to a ‘Gaelic Fringe’ approach to apps and contact tracing across the (contested) borders of nation-states in the islands of Britain and Ireland. The outcome of this approach may be de facto the establishment of Scotland’s digital sovereignty in a similar way to the movement in Catalonia, another separatist region in Spain. This is all the more significant given Scottish Parliament elections in 2021, which the SNP are tipped to win by a landslide, and calls for another independence referendum, with polls consistently showing a pro-independence vote in the lead.

Yet the need to adhere to the Google-Apple protocol in order to create functioning apps does limit political entities’ digital sovereignty, both of Scotland and full nation-states which have had to use this protocol for their own apps. The Google-Apple protocol has promoted a measure of privacy protection lacking, for instance, from the UK Government’s initial NHSX app, but the need to adopt this protocol for a successful app demonstrates and reinforces the power of big tech firms.

Photo credits: Stephen McLeod Blythe (@stephenemm)

Government transparency

The Scottish Government has undoubtedly been more transparent about its COVID app than its counterparts in London have been about the NHSX app and the involvement of big tech firms in providing digital infrastructure for the pandemic, as a series of openDemocracy investigations have demonstrated.

However the Scottish Government does not have a flawless record on its own transparency during this period. In Scotland freedom of information (FoI) laws were ‘relaxed’ at the outbreak of the pandemic in April, allowing government agencies a threefold extension to their deadlines for responding to freedom of information requests. These measures were strongly criticised at the time. Even the UK government did not relax FoI laws to the same extent. The Index on Free Expression criticised the Scottish Government, comparing it to Bolsonaro’s Brazil for its restrictions of freedom of information rights during the pandemic.

Access to public data and information extends beyond FoI. Who is infected with COVID and who has died from COVID and where have been key questions in order to understand whether certain groups have been more impacted than others. In England people from Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds have been more susceptible to infection and death form COVID for a number of reasons including socio-economic circumstances, structural racism and pre-existing health inequalities. Scotland has a significant minority population of South Asian origin, and there was anecdotal evidence in spring 2020 that this community was experiencing a disproportionate amount of COVID deaths. Scottish NGO the Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights (CRER) raised concerns about the lack of data on this issue and the poor quality of the data that did exist. Finally, in July the National Record of Scotland published a study on ethnicity and COVID in Scotland which found that South Asian people were 1.9 times more likely to die of COVID. This is in line with outcomes in other parts of the UK, but the Scottish data was made available later than elsewhere. CRER is still calling for more and better data to be generated and released on COVID and ethnicity in Scotland.

Data and marketization

For contact tracing the Scottish Government has followed a less neoliberal and privatised approach to England, where these functions have been outsourced to private companies (ironically including some located in Scotland, one of which itself experienced a COVID outbreak). However marketization and privatisation of other public functions have had an obfuscating impact on what data is available to the public in Scotland.

Like elsewhere in the UK, and in other western countries, care homes for the elderly and disabled have been severely impacted by COVID, with many residents dying of the disease. One notorious example was the private Home Farm care home on the Isle of Skye, where ten residents died of the virus, run by HC-One, one of the UK’s largest care home providers. Care home regulatory bodies in both England and Scotland have refused to make public the numbers of deaths in specific care homes, with part of the justification being that this would negatively affect providers’ commercial interests.

While so far not as deadly, marketised universities in Scotland like the rest of the UK brought students back to campus for the start of the new academic year (in some cases with all teaching still online) and have experienced COVID outbreaks in shared student accommodation from September 2020. There has been patchy information about COVID cases among campus communities, with some institutions releasing this data and others not, leading to the UniCOVID site set up by two University of Sussex academics to track developments. It seems that universities are becoming more forthcoming about tracking their own COVID outbreaks and releasing data publicly, however there is no systematic way this is being done and not every institution is readily providing this data. Marketisation of this public service has led to students returning prematurely to campuses and may have contributed to institutions’ reticence in compiling and publicising data about COVID cases.

There are aspects of the Scottish digital story which demonstrate a clearly different path from that of the UK central government, notably the approach to contact tracing which remains within the public health service rather than being outsourced to private providers, yet also which represents a radical alignment with Dublin on the app. Along with the Belfast administration’s embrace of the Nearform software, we see a Gaelic Fringe approach to contact tracing apps emerging, one which is also in line with European standards more generally and thus represents a further cleavage with the pro-Brexit London government. While the Scottish Government may have adopted this approach for pragmatic reasons, in outcome it may be seen as a further step towards Scotland’s digital sovereignty in some senses, but also shows the limits of this sovereignty inasmuch as the Google-Apple protocol is respected.

The worst excesses of the UK government’s privatised and digitised COVID response are not replicated in Scotland, but equally things have not been perfect either. Transparency, who is counted in data, and what data is available to the public have been influenced negatively by logics of privatisation and marketization in public functions, particularly in care homes. The needs of ethnic minorities to be counted and visible in data when COVID has disproportionately affected them, were not adequately addressed and taken account of by the Scottish Government.

Scotland shows the potential for the margins to forge different paths on data than the cores, but also the limits of doing so in a world of big tech, neoliberal logics and inequalities. Groups such as the CRER demanding more and better data on COVID and ethnicity in Scotland and the wider UK initiative UniCOVID providing data on university outbreaks including in Scotland shows the kinds of bottom-up data activism emerging in the COVID context. With COVID, data is power, data is political and this is as true in Scotland as it is elsewhere.


About the author

Dr Angela Daly is Senior Lecturer in Strathclyde Law School and Co-Director of the Strathclyde Centre for Internet Law & Policy in Glasgow, Scotland. As a ‘critical friend’ she has advised the Scottish Government on data in its COVID-19 response as a member of the COVID-19 Data Taskforce and a board member of Research Data Scotland. She co-edited the open access book Good Data in 2019.



[BigDataSur-COVID] Contact Tracing Apps: Friend or Foe?

by Alexandra Elliott

A man decides to go grocery shopping during the COVID 19 pandemic. Despite his best efforts to be cautious he comes within a 1.5m distance with another shopper while reaching for a basket, another when selecting his milk, two more when squeezing through the crowded cereal aisle and the cashier as he pays for his groceries. He then returns home to hugs from his wife and three kids. A few days later the man tests positive for the Coronavirus and all those he came into contact with may potentially also be sick. Each of these people has their own web of contacts, of which every person has another web and so on. And this is only the contacts made within one hour.

Contact tracing is essential in detecting cases of COVID 19, early treatment and the reduction of further contamination, ultimately overcoming the pandemic. However it is clear that doing so is no mean feat. With the total cases worldwide exceeding 7 million it seems reasonable to adopt the assistance of technology in contact tracing efforts. So why is there so much contention over the implementation of contact tracing apps? Consider this a summary guide.

In an attempt to assess whether contact-tracing technology should be met with approval I will position it within the academic notions of Good Data. Explaining how contract tracing works, through a case study of Australia’s COVIDSafe app, I hope to reach an understanding of why this technique is an essential tool in minimising the curve of the Coronavirus, “a strategy that goes hand-in-hand with economic recovery and reducing the isolation recommendations that are currently in place”. We will then explore many of the concerns and controversies preventing unanimous enthusiasm over the process, presenting both the arguments and their rebuttals to deliver a comprehensive portrait of the matter.

With the rise in suspicions over Big Tech and their manipulative and invasive data practices a counteractive field of academia developed focusing on ethical uses of data. There are discrepancies over the terminology and definitions found within the discourse – responsible data, good data, data justice – and many scholars have called for a unified understanding to therefore accelerate the ideas and implications. I have chosen to umbrella these concepts under the label Good Data.

One reference of the central ideas of the field can be found within the work of Taylor and Purtova (2019). They divide data justice into data responsibility and data sustainability; the first covering the impact of data on the user (for example matters of privacy and bias) and the latter referring to utilising data for the benefit of society – data for humanitarian, not capitalist, purpose. We will continue this piece by exploring how contact tracing apps fit into this model as an example of Good Data.

Big Data as Public Good

To illustrate how contact tracing apps are a sustainable data practice they can be understood as an implementation of Big Data as public good.

The information big data provides can be utilised for the benefit of society. Within relevant fields of academia this action is referred to as ‘data as public good’. However the reality of data access for humanitarian purposes is difficult to achieve due to the clashing responsibilities and ambitions of the various actors involved. Taylor (2016) and Ritchie and Welpton (2011) have both attempted to navigate these relationships and assess the likelihood of the exposure of personal datasets to benefit humanity.

Many papers dissect the data collection and analysis ecosystem of mobile operators and other Big Tech companies. If, upon release, data held by corporations can “promote social good” such as alerting emergency responses then it should be made available but this may not be in the best interests of the data’s private owners. The responsibility of exploiting privacy lays with the data owner who becomes hesitant to release information for fear it soil their reputation. We therefore encounter a block in sharing data for humanitarian endeavours.

COVIDSafe provides an alternative, more harmonious, model of data as public good by eliminating private ownership. The data is collected and analysed by the Australian government for the benefit of the Australian people. The government accepts the responsibility of individuals’ privacy. Unlike other cases involving numerous differing parties who collect the data and who analyse and use the data, the government’s goals align with the goals of the research – protecting the Australian population. There is no longer a need for repurposing. Through COVIDSafe an entirely new dataset is being collected, designed for the purpose of contact tracing and therefore facilitating the process of data for the public good.

Contact Tracing

Contact tracing involves identifying those who have been in contact with an infectious person so that they can isolate themselves and halt the spread. The process ultimately seeks to control the spread of a disease or virus and can be automated by smartphone tracking apps.

This tracking can be conducted over either Bluetooth or GPS. Bluetooth options offer more privacy, as they do not record the location at which contact occurred. Alternatively, others argue for GPS and its ability to identify hot spots. Up until recently Apple’s iOS software blocked Bluetooth from running in the background of apps. This would have rendered contact tracing apps ineffective as the app needed to always be open to detect contacts. They have now removed that function thus supporting the development and use of such applications.

Once in operation a phone with a contact tracing app will send out a code through Bluetooth to any other phone, also with the app, which comes within a detectable distance. An example developed alongside the Australian government is COVIDSafe.


Australia’s government and health authorities have adopted the COVIDSafe app as a tool to contain and hopefully overcome Coronavirus in the country. It’s endorsement has been strong with widespread advertisements encouraging Australians to download the app and the Prime Minister Scott Morrison appealing to the public with assurances that the more people that use the app the more quickly the pubs can reopen.

COVIDSafe works by recognising other devices in its proximity with the app installed, “it notes the date, time, distance and duration of the contact and the other user’s reference code”. The reference code is anonymous and refreshed every two hours, the data collected is encrypted and the information is deleted after 21 days (a time period which covers both incubation and testing).

From both the COVIDSafe website and statements by the government it is clear that those involved are aware of users apprehension of infringement of privacy and wish to resolve such concerns. The Guardian recently conducted a survey, which found 57% of respondents to be anxious of the security protecting their personal information.

In an attempt to quell concerns both a Privacy Policy and Privacy Impact Assessment Report are available to read and users may opt out at anytime and request for the immediate deletion of their records. Furthermore, it is a criminal offence to use the data collection for any purpose other than contact tracing (including law or isolation enforcement) and by any other actors than those delegated, punishable by a five-year jail sentence.

Regardless of these protections, COVIDSafe is not an open source software prompting critics to argue that it “is not subject to audit or oversight”. The reason privacy protection is so critical is that the data collected constructs a “comprehensible social contacts map of the nation”. A dataset of Australians’ behavioural patterns could become a valuable resource for a range of purposes from marketing opportunities to more malicious regimes.

Since its appearance in the app store COVIDSafe has experienced a number of setbacks including hoax texts distributed to users with a message reading “the COVIDSafe app has detected you are now +20km from your nominated home address” and the revelation that the users’ phone make and model was communicated unencrypted. There was also backlash in the media of the choice to store the data in the American owned Amazon Web Services (AWS) over Australian providers fit for the purpose. As well as the lost opportunity to support local businesses (particularly necessary during the pandemic), concerns were raised over information being accessed by American entities due to legislation approving government access to data held by any US owned companies. However there is some ambiguity surrounding the matter as AWS are already used for a range of Australian federal operations and the transferring of COVIDSafe data to any country is prohibited through the Biosecurity Act.

Research has confirmed that certain user numbers must be attainted before contact tracing apps can be labelled as effective. The University of Oxford conducted an experiment on a simulated city to reveal that 80 per cent of smartphone users in the U.K., or 56 per cent of the population must be using the app it is to be successful in curbing the spread of the Coronavirus. Unfortunately this cannot be enforced, it is important to permit downloading the app as voluntary to maintain civil liberties.

User numbers may be inhibited by scepticism throughout society towards both the government and Big Tech’s use of surveillance to monitor our daily routines and consequent reluctance to participate. Furthermore, there is a high correlation between those without possession of a smartphone and those at high risk of contracting COVID 19 – particularly the older generation and those from a low-income bracket. Contact tracing apps therefore fail to detect and protect many, potentially severe, cases.

Another issue is the limitations of the technology infrastructure. The Bluetooth range extends beyond 1.5 metres and also permeates through walls creating false positives. Numbers may also be inaccurately inflated through “self-diagnosing incorrectly or worse, trolls spamming the system”. False positives need to be avoided not only for the efficiency of the operation but also as to not loose the faith of its users. 

In conclusion

If assessing contact tracing apps based off their ethical purpose COVIDSafe, and its intentions of eliminating a pandemic, would be considered a golden example of Good Data. However following Taylor and Purtova (2019) it is not only sustainability but also responsibility that must be met to attain a holistic Good Data practice. Concerns over confidentiality and inaccuracies prevent contact tracing apps from easily being categorised as Good.

However, what if the equal weighting of responsibility and sustainability is not fixed? Extenuating circumstances often mean we must prioritise and compromise. Contact tracing apps are an example of foregoing responsibility towards the individual for sustainability of the whole.

Additionally, incorporation of decentralised storage, allowing people to choose from a pool of suppliers to align with their values, providing an exit strategy so data is not stored post virus and inviting collaboration to incite innovation could construct a more trustworthy model of contact tracing. Trust has become particularly potent, do we trust our government and health services to utilise this data for the benefit of the public? It is important to maintain perspective and remember what is at stake, “it sounds like a dystopian surveillance nightmare that could also save millions of lives and rescue the global economy”. In times of crisis we may comply with conditions otherwise worth challenging. Sacrifices and personal discomfort may be necessary and worthwhile if they lead to overcoming and healing from COVID 19.


About the Author

Alexandra grew up in Sydney, Australia before moving to England to complete her Bachelors degree at Warwick University. She is currently undertaking a Research Masters in Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam. It is through this course that she became involved with the Good Data tutorial and DATACTIVE project.