This post by Anniek de Koning is part of our series “Global Digital Cultures in times of COVID-19”, written by students of the research master Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam.
While smart technologies such as contact tracing apps, or crowd sensors can be helpful in the battle against COVID-19, they don’t always prioritize equitable outcomes. As expected from the “first smart city of Europe“, Amsterdam has relied on several smart technologies in fighting the pandemic. It is uncertain, however, whether all citizens profit from these technologies.
In the last decade, a growing number of European cities have employed what Olivier Gassman, Jonas Böhm and Maximilian Palmié have defined as ´intelligent solutions for infrastructure, energy, housing, mobility, services and security based on integrated sensor technology, connectivity, data analytics and independently functional value-added processes’ (p. 25), making them Smart Cities. However, as Jiska Engelbert, Liesbet van Zoonen, and Fadi Hirzalla illustrate in their article on European Smart Cities, the implementation of technological measures discursively strips social problems from their structural causes and makes them ‘urban challenges’ instead (p. 350), while also excluding certain citizen groups (p. 348). Though they don’t explicitly mention it, in such statements they implicitly question the equitable outcomes of smart city initiatives. Equity, in this case, means technology should not disadvantage people based on class, race, age, gender or ability through its outcomes. But access to technologies should also be evenly distributed. This means, as Smart City initiatives are expanding across Europe, academics and policymakers need to question whether these initiatives can play a significant role in battling COVID-19 and at what cost.
Smart COVID-19 measures
Smart technologies used in the fight against Corona have been examined quite extensively by Rahul Jaiswal, Anshul Agarwal and Richa Negi and Daniel da Costa and Joao Peixoto. The latter categorized different smart technologies used to detect the virus, alert the citizens, and mitigate emergencies (p. 65). Examples of technologies operating at the individual level include the use of apps, the most notorious being the COVID-19 tracing app, and wearable devices, such as those used to measure someone’s heart rate, temperature or sugar levels (Ibid.: p. 66). On a collective level, social media, satellites, public agent systems (e-government) and sensor stations are used (Ibid.). These sensor-based stations refer to the use of cameras to detect potentially contagious people or the failure to wear face masks (Ibid: p. 67). Moreover, social media data is employed to track the spread of (mis)information or the communication about symptoms in certain areas (Ibid.). These insights can be used to predict the number of beds or staff necessary in particular hospitals, to regulate transportation, or to control the way populations move (p. 68). Technology thus grants numerous methods to counter the spread of the virus and increase citizen knowledge. However, Engelbert, van Zoonen and Hirzalla point out that not every city has the same means to implement such technologies. What this means is that if these technologies are successful, the gap between cities and governments who have access to smart technologies and solve their COVID-19 crises will most likely increase. But even within places that are implementing these technologies, access, agency and outcomes may differ for its citizens.
Outsmarting COVID-19 in Amsterdam?
The first thing the City of Amsterdam did in the fight against COVID-19 is to invest in e-government, or the use of technological communication devices to provide services to citizens. Although Amsterdam already invested in e-government before the pandemic, the municipality recently made it possible for —and encourages—inhabitants to conduct most actions online and to have long-distance consults with members of the municipality. Another tool that has been used specifically in the pandemic is this interactive crowd-measuring map, created in collaboration with Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions (AMS), a partner of Amsterdam Smart City. Through this tool, people can share their impressions of how crowded an area is. The app however also uses data provided by Resono, drawing on Android and IOs location data and uses the city’s smart sensors to measure densities. That data is visualized through colors and numbers on the map of Amsterdam, so people can avoid these crowded areas and limit the potential threat of spreading the virus.
With another COVID-19 summer ahead of us, Amsterdam is looking into Smart Technologies for events, museums and sports through, for example, apps that navigate crowd flows. This would limit the spread of the virus and would allow more people to work and consume outside of the home. The third main focus of Amsterdam has been telehealth: providing health services through digital technologies or telecommunication. This is by no means a new concept. It has been employed for years in rural areas around the globe. However, in the last year, it has become more relevant in urban areas and it is now used in the battle against COVID-19 by having health consults online.
Along with these Smart City measures, there are national COVID-19 technologies. The Netherlands, like many other countries, has developed a COVID-19 tracing app called the Coronamelder. This free app – currently downloaded by approximately 4 million users –was developed by the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport in collaboration with tech startups and is supported by Google and Apple. Through Bluetooth people are notified when they have been in close proximity with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. However, in an article by researchers Ashkan Soltani, Ryan Calo, and Carl Bergstrom on the effects of contact tracing apps, it is pointed out that people living in closer density to one another, risk false positives. This, according to them, affects ‘non-white and lower income communities’ more harshly. Despite the statement by Coronamelder that walls will likely block the strength of Bluetooth, more research needs to be done to confirm that an equitable outcome can be guaranteed.
Image: Snapshot of Druktebeeld 19 februari 2021 (Gemeente Amsterdam)
The City of Amsterdam has implemented numerous available smart technologies. Yet, the question remains: what effects will they have on equity concerning access, agency and outcome? As cities create tools and policies without focusing on the ‘ power relations that produced the problem to begin with’, as Engelbert and colleagues maintain, one can question how approaching COVID-19 with technologies shifts the attention away from structural health inequalities. Even after the pandemic, the question remains: will the focus on apps overshadow the focus on proper health care when we see issues as technological rather than social? Effective smart healthcare options like personal monitoring devices are often unattainable for people who need them the most. This mainly includes older people, or people with a lower education.
Moreover, Europe is mainly investing in smartness in cities with institutions that already have advanced technological infrastructures (p. 350). Consequently, on a macro level, the implementations of smart technologies will most likely widen the gap between countries and cities that do have access to these technologies and ones that don’t. In addition – in this case for the national COVID-19 tracing app and the Druktebeeld tool- The Netherlands depends on tech giants Google and Apple, who develop and control the two leading mobile operating systems Android and iOS. This development shows the dependency of people on services provided by tech giants whose wealth has merely been growing during the COVID-19 crisis. However, more alarmingly, it also signifies how governments and municipalities depend on private companies to develop specific technologies. This could lead to a lack of public oversight over the provided services, potentially helping and harming some more than others. On a smaller scale, smart city initiatives often exclude less tech-savvy citizens. With 87% of Dutch citizens owning a smartphone, already 13% is excluded from sharing their crowd experiences or using the Coronamelder. But even for people who own smartphones, the ones who are not as tech-savvy have a harder time keeping up.
Despite the success of some smart technologies such as tracing apps, smart sensors, telehealth or e-government, equity needs to be a central concern on an urban and a global level. Otherwise digital divide will grow and people who need smart technologies the most, won’t have access.
Anniek de Koning is a research master student in Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam, part of the New Media and Digital Cultures track. Due to her background in cultural studies and gender studies, she now focuses on digital cultural expressions, programmed inequalities and technological agency of citizens. She enjoys experimental films, but also Reality TV and has worked in several cultural institutions to create inclusivity with people it aims to include, not only for them. (Twitter: @Anniekdkon)