The race is on to find technology solutions to fight the spread of the Covid-19 virus that do not also compromise our privacy by forcibly tracking the day-to-day movement of potentially infected citizens.

Cambridge-based personal data management startup Dataswift, along with several universities and the UK health service’s digital transformation unit NHSX, are some of the bodies organising a global hackathon this weekend to find technology solutions to fight Covid-19.

“There is a better way of doing this. We can develop ways in which people can donate their data rather than having it simply taken.”

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They are looking for solutions that can help citizens volunteer their own health information and mobilise volunteers — but do so in a way that doesn’t compromise privacy. Many states, notably South Korea, have ramped up state surveillance to help track and fight the disease.

The hackathon comes as there has been a lot of enthusiasm for citizen science, with people logging their own symptoms to help track the disease — the C-19 Covid Symptom Tracker app in the UK was downloaded more than 1.5m times in the few days since it was launched.

But there has also been consternation over plans by the EU and by individual governments to require telecoms companies to hand over customer data to help predict the spread of the virus. The UK privacy watchdog, for example, recently said the government could use mobile phone data to check if people were complying with lockdown rules.

“There is a better way of doing this. We can develop ways in which people can donate their data rather than having it simply taken,” says Irene Ng, chief executive of Dataswift, and one of the organisers of the hackathon. Dataswift makes tools that help give people more control over their personal data, so this is a cause close to Ng’s heart.

“We need to ensure that in these difficult times opportunistic app makers aren’t hoovering up our data, and to avoid a scenario where the world ends up worse than it was before.”

“We need to ensure that in these difficult times opportunistic app makers aren’t hoovering up our data, and to avoid a scenario where the world ends up worse than it was before,” says Ng. “This collective action will prove that the ethical data economy can trump the surveillance economy.”

The Hack from Home hackathon, which will take place on April 4-5 and aims to bring together developers, medics and engineers to create around 25 apps or solutions, which will be funded with grants from corporate sponsors and private donors. Enough funding has been pledged to give project teams a few thousand pounds each to get started.

“Everyone is feeling a sense of frustration. The world is facing a crisis on a scale and depth we have not seen since the second world war, but people are feeling disempowered, sitting at home. We want to help bring them together,” says James Kingston, head of HATLAB, an innovation hub that creates data tools, which is helping to coordinate the event.

What the hackathon is looking for

The team is looking for ideas around three themes:

  • Citizen science — ways in which individuals can help healthcare services and governments tackle the disease.
  • Community health — technology that help make sure vulnerable people in communities have the food and medical care they need.
  • Mass coordination — solutions that would help mobilise volunteers and get resources to where they are needed.

Facebook and WhatsApp groups have already spontaneously sprung up around the world to address each of these issues, but better co-ordination of the many separate efforts are desperately needed.

Partners who have signed up to support the initiative include Case Western Reserve University’s xLab, the Cleveland Clinic’s Hwang Lab, WMG University of Warwick, University of Surrey, University of Exeter, the Ethical Tech Alliance, Samsung Medical Center, AITRICS and the Yonsei Severance Medical Center, one of Korea’s most prominent healthcare centres covering the disease.

The participation of South Korean partners is particularly interesting. South Korea has been one of the few countries able to slow the spread of the disease without strict lockdowns for people. This has involved extensive testing and also a great deal of surveillance — using data from cellphones, CCTV cameras and credit card transactions to map who suspected Covid-19 sufferers have been in contact with.

Singapore and Hong Kong — also so far containing the virus more successfully than most — have similar measures. Europe and the US may have to adopt this approach, but there are doubts over whether people would accept this level of surveillance. A need for privacy-proof solutions to Covid-19 tracking is therefore acute.

So far, more than 250 participants have signed up for the hackathon, but the team are still looking for more participants and donors.

You can sign up for the hackathon here: https://www.hackfromhome.com/join-us-form.

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