COVID-19 Should Change the Way We Think About Data
After a year of social distancing and sporadic lock-downs, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Case counts are declining, vaccines are on their way, and spring is in the air. There's even been speculation that vaccines may reach us sooner than expected.
After all this time, it will be tempting to wash our hands of the pandemic and never look back. Even I'll admit, there is something refreshing in the idea that we might go a week without having to hear our politicians mention COVID-19.
For all it's costs, however, the pandemic has also revealed a lot about what's needed and what's possible in the months to come. With a post-pandemic future fast approaching, then, it is worth making note of what we might learn from this unprecedented year.
Though I'll leave it to others to discuss the many revelations that the pandemic has brought to bear on healthcare, agriculture, and more, I think that COVID-19 has also provided us some valuable lessons about public data.
Data has been front and center these past twelve months. Every day, we are bombarded with numbers about cases, fatalities, the economy, and, now, vaccinations.
On the one hand, these numbers have been invaluable. They have allowed us to track the pandemic and provide targeted, efficient public health responses. Economic data has enabled politicians to develop important supports for local businesses and residents.
Importantly, data has also provided further proof of what many already suspected. Namely, that COVID-19 has not impacted Canadians equally and that Black and Indigenous Canadians have been disproportionately harmed by the pandemic and its economic fallout.
Though such examples highlight the ongoing importance of data, however, COVID-19 has also shed light on the dark underbelly of our increasingly datafied world.
Early in the pandemic, for example, private companies like X-Mode published visualizations of local travel patterns using data gleaned from mobile phones. There was also speculation that governments would use similar data to enforce lock-down measures, especially for those returning from out-of-country.
Such technologies are not benign. For starters, we know that seemingly anonymous data, such as that published by X-Mode, remains tremendously vulnerable to re-identification.
More importantly, such examples betray the growing pervasiveness of data collection in our public and private lives. Our activities are increasingly recorded, providing thos ewith control of the data unparalleled access to our daily lives. While a neat video of crowds on Florida beaches may not be cause for alarm, the reality is that more and more of this data is being used to predict, commodify, and even manipulate our behaviour in ways that benefit private interests. In many cases, this data isn't even necessary to the technology itself.
Such values have followed these technologies to our cities and towns. Under pressure to find affordable and attractive solutions, many municipalities are partnering with firms whose generosity is matched only by the fervour with which they strive to measure, record, and profit from our behaviour.
If COVID-19 has provided insight into these forces, however, it has also provided insight into how we might do things differently, too. Look no further than the federal government's contact-tracing application released last year. Removed from the data-mining operations of companies like Google and Facebook, the application provides a glimpse into what public technology might look like if we forgo our interest in personal information and focus, instead, on collective good.
Launched on July 31, 2020, the COVID Alert App provides voluntary and anonymous contact tracing for Canadians. Developed in partnership with Canadian companies like BlackBerry and Shopify, the app uses Bluetooth technology to broadcast randomly-generated IDs between smartphones, letting users know if they have recently been in contact with a confirmed case.
The app hasn't avoided controversy, of course. Many have rightly suggested that decisions regarding procurement should have been more transparent and democratic. The app has also struggled with uptake, with only 3-million Canadians using the app by September 2020. This latter point, especially, raises questions about how governments might compete with the ongoing gameification that has accompanied the growing library of data-hungry apps.
Still, the COVID Alert app reminds us that personally identifiable information is not an inevitability when it comes to civic technology. In many cases, community ends can be accomplished otherwise. We can design differently if we are willing to try.
For all it's failures, the app provides a hint at the role technology might play in the future - the seeds of an alternative rooted in collective good rather than personalization at all costs. It starts with thinking more carefully about the data that we don't require.