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GLOBVAC-Global helse- og vaksin.forskn

The Smartphone Pandemic: Mobile technologies and data in the COVID-19 response (SMARTCOVID)

Alternative title: Smarttelefonpandemien: mobilteknologi og data i håndteringen av COVID-19 (SMARTCOVID)

Awarded: NOK 3.5 mill.

The SMARTCOVID project, led by Katerini T. Storeng at the University of Oslo (UiO), critically examines the rise of such pandemic tech innovations - and the companies that own them - focusing on the growing use of mobile data and contact tracing apps. By combining insights from anthropology, international relations, political economy, and philosophy, we have been studying the global norms and institutions governing these technologies, since June 2020. So far, we have analysed the establishment of public-private partnerships between Big Tech, telecoms corporations and public health authorities in the digital response to COVID-19 internationally and critiqued the shifting relationships between state and corporate power that this digital response implies (Storeng and de Bengy Puyvallée 2021). We have also analysed the evidence claims justifying the widespread deployment of contact tracing apps (de Bengy Puyvallée and Storeng 2021) and argued that such apps have not shown good return on investment, do not solve pandemic health governance challenges, and fail to help the people most likely to become sick from the virus (Erikson 2020). Ongoing research in Sierra Leone, Myanmar, the UK, Japan and Taiwan is examining the social, political, and ethical implications of the digital response to Covid-19. Our aim is to ensure the ethical and equitable use of pandemic tech. Repeated lockdowns have made a planned physical meeting as a team impossible, meaning that all of our project meetings have had to be held virtually. Covid-related restrictions have made fieldwork difficult and at times impossible, although we hope that travel and fieldwork can resume in the final six months of the project. Project team members have been personally affected by Covid-19 and lockdowns, delaying work. The military coup and rapidly escalating epidemic in Myanmar have made official fieldwork impossible. Nevertheless, the project group has worked together remotely, resulting, for example, in the publication of six academic outputs and many popular media contributions during the project?s first year.


Will people let public health authorities track their movements through mobile phone data as they seek to establish the effectiveness of Covid-19 countermeasures like physical distancing, school closures and travel restrictions? Until recently, such questions seemed unfathomable outside of authoritarian regimes. However, the COVID-19 pandemic response has seen the rapid introduction of digital innovations like smartphone apps and mobile data in countries’ efforts to manage the crisis. New partnerships between governments and tech companies and new legal injunctions passed without public oversight have created a ‘data governance crisis of international concern’ that seems set to fundamentally alter the way we think about privacy in relation to the public good. The SMARTPREP project provides the first investigation of the political, social and ethical implications of new uses of digital innovations in the COVID-19 response. It will analyse global data governance norms and provide case studies of Norway and Sierra Leone. Norway is currently at the forefront of experimenting with digital innovations as part of its effort to stem its outbreak, while Sierra Leone is drawing on experience of using smartphone tech during the Ebola crisis in 2014-2015 to prepare for a likely outbreak there. The project will explore how political and cultural differences affect public responses to digital innovation in times of crisis, while established relationships between the two countries around health information and development aid will make it possible to study instances of policy and technology transfer. The project will provide policy-relevant knowledge about how digital innovations affect the way societies think of, prepare for, and respond to pandemic risk, and novel insights into how the use of digital innovations to fight the pandemic can challenge core societal values such as democracy, privacy and trust, with potential implications for the effectiveness of countermeasures.


GLOBVAC-Global helse- og vaksin.forskn

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