Apps to fight a crisis?

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Manuel Trenz Photo: Gesche Quent
Manuel Trenz Photo: Gesche Quent
Research project at Göttingen University investigates acceptance and effective use of coronavirus tracing apps

How can apps like the Corona-Warn app help combat the pandemic? How can people use their data to help manage crises in our society without putting their data at risk of misuse? What role can technological configurations or government regulations play in the success of such apps? A research team at the University of Göttingen is addressing these questions. The Volkswagen Foundation has funded the "Participatory Surveillance" project for one and a half years with around 100,000 euros.

Natural disasters - earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, or epidemics like SARS and COVID-19, or climate change - pose significant challenges to governments worldwide. In order to be able to react, detailed data on current events is always going to be necessary. "One possible approach could be to develop apps that actively involve citizens," explains Professor Manuel Trenz, Professor of Interorganizational Information Systems.

"An example that affects us all right now is the use of coronavirus tracing apps. By sharing sensitive data, people can contribute, both actively and passively, in the fight against the pandemic. Actively, for example, by sharing information about their own infection, and passively, for example, by tracking encounters with other people. However, the design and configuration of these tracing apps can also lead to negative consequences such as loss of privacy or the potential for data misuse, which can spread seeds of doubt about their effectiveness, legitimacy, and success," explains Professor Simon Trang, Assistant Professor of Information Security and Compliance.

How can such "societal apps" that rely on participatory surveillance (ie voluntary release of individuals’ sensitive data) be both effective and at the same time compatible with public policy? "We are investigating how worldwide national coronavirus tracing apps differ in terms of their technological configurations and regulatory frameworks. Our aim is to assess the positive and negative effects of such societal apps for individuals and society: to find out which approaches work, what is necessary for it and what the unintended consequences can be," says Trenz.

The results of the project should support decision-makers in successfully involving people in solving major societal problems by means of appropriate technology. At the same time, the aim is to identify potential risks and negative effects of using tracing technology for individuals and society and to derive guidelines for the design of these technologies.