Drones and robot dogs to check covid-19 are amusing and scary, but this is also a time for governments to build and use tech that follows principles of accountability, clarity and fairness
While sheltering at home to keep herself safe from the novel coronavirus, Neela Chandra was overwhelmed with updates on TV and social media but wasn’t certain how to sift through the clutter. One message on how technology was helping fight the disease caught her eye. It urged her to download Aarogya Setu, the contact-tracing app endorsed by the government, but she wondered about the privacy risks. Would it get access to all her data? Would she be able to restrict access after deleting the app?
Many of us have been in Chandra’s shoes, sceptical about new technology. Digital technology will be part of any solution in the future, though not the panacea. World Health Organization has outlined a protocol of test, trace, isolate and support as a strategy for tackling covid-19. For each person that tests positive, officials aim to trace every contact that was exposed to that person and isolate them in a quarantine centre. This offline approach, adopted for communicable diseases, has now been supplemented with mobile-based contact tracing.
Based on Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s covid tracing tracker, over 25 countries have some form of contact-tracing mobile application, with a combination of Bluetooth and GPS-based proximity and location tracking. The Indian version of this app is Aarogya Setu, which has seen a significant offtake but has also faced spirited critiques from privacy advocates.
Government support for Aarogya Setu has placed technology in the spotlight. Technology applications should stand on three pillars of good governance—transparency, accountability and fairness to meaningfully invigorate our response to this crisis. There has been progress on all counts, but with scope for improvement.
First, transparency about the underlying technology, data collection and outcomes that the application can deliver will build trust. Technologists can scrutinize and verify the robustness of an application if the source code is open, similar to Singapore’s TraceTogether application. This will ensure informed public discussion about the merits of the underlying technology. Spreading awareness about the data collected and reasons for collecting it will build trust for people.
The fight against this virus is likely to stretch for months. We will need solutions that people can rely on with trust. As per reports, Aarogya Setu has helped predict more than 300 emerging hotspots, based on self-declared symptoms by users and their movement patterns. This is a shot in the arm for building trust in the application. However, we should be mindful that this technology is unproven in its core promise of contact tracing. Setting right expectations and reporting the results regularly will help build a trusted relationship in this long fight.
Third, based on the principle of fairness, democratic states have not made such technology systems mandatory. More than 100 million Indians have downloaded the app, which can provide data sets at scale for meaningful predictions. However, a research paper from Oxford University suggests that contact-tracing applications can be effective only if they are consistently used by over 60% of the population, an uphill task for India.
India has over 400 million feature phones, which cannot download or operate Aarogya Setu. Therefore, the current adoption rate is impressive but far from adequate. Initiatives to create solutions for feature phones, like using Linux-based KaiOS, will help advance inclusion, and the scope of initiatives should be expanded to make this technology widely accessible.
Aarogya Setu is one of the many digital technology interventions. Aggregated population mobility data analytics provided by Google and Facebook, geographic information systems (GIS) mapping and mobile location have helped authorities plan for prompt responses such as dispersing large gatherings. Use of CCTV cameras to alert for masks; drones and robot dogs (as seen in a Singapore park) to remind people of social distancing; and use of robots in Jharkhand for contactless care of covid-19 patients are novel concepts. These tech deployments are amusing and scary at the same time. They are also fraught with risks if data is not handled with care and expertise. It is a moment of reckoning for technology developers, health officials, and regulators to bring their best game and help create the bridge to good technology, one that meets the twin objectives of public health and privacy safeguards.
Sushant Kumar is principal at Omidyar Network India.