ET Prime 4 Jun 2020

In 7 charts: Why more research is needed to gauge effectiveness of India’s pandemic tech spectrum 

by Nirmal John, Kanika Saxena

The need for a detailed, unbiased study of the implications and effectiveness of the technology-led pushback on Covid-19 is real and immediate. This compilation of data around the extent of the reliance on technology is a beginning.

“It does run the risk of increasing state power and we have to guard against that and treat many of these things as a temporary step that needs to be rolled back once things get back to normal.” Those are the words of Nandan Nilekani, who is the heart of India’s techno-centric push to solve systemic problems. The “it” he warns about, is India’s techno-centric approach to Covid-19 management. The world turned to tech to fight Covid-19. So did India. The establishment — both at the Centre and the states — have been looking at technology for answers like never before, with a slew of interventions to manage the outbreak. This comes out of a pervasive belief in government circles that tech can solve many of the issues arising out of the pandemic. That outlook has created controversies. It has, for instance, renewed discussions on the boundaries between the society and the individual at the macro level, and the balance between privacy and pandemic management.

Two questions that stand out in particular are:

What has been the extent thus far of these technology-led interventions?

Who all — among both state and non-state entities — have announced it to be mandatory?

State of affairs

While centralised interventions often get more share of voice in the national media, there are several such initiatives at the state level as well. There have been at least 41 state-level interventions through apps. The infographic below allows for a bird’s-eye view of such state-level technological interventions through apps often developed by private entities, which have been announced over the last few weeks and used by authorities at various levels. Many of them have gone unnoticed and the spotlight on the rest has at best been intermittent.

The centre of surveillance

A lot has been written about Aarogya Setu, its rapid growth, its technical issues, and its impact on privacy.

There have been extensive debates on whether the controversial app should be made mandatory or not. The Internet Democracy Project created a tracker which looks at the implementation of Aarogya Setu from this point of view. This tracker has further been divided according to entities which have made it mandatory; entities in the process of making it mandatory; entities that have used Aarogya Setu to influence people’s behaviour; and those that have recommended or suggested it to be downloaded.

Efforts from others

There are also a few government organisations that have developed their own apps, either complementary to Aarogya Setu or as standalone contact-tracing solutions.

At the centre of it all is a question that remains unanswered. What has been the level of effectiveness of these technological interventions? There is an urgent need to go deep and research the effectiveness of these interventions. While claims and counter-claims are aplenty, this need for a detailed, unbiased study of the implications and effectiveness of the technological stack built around Covid-19 is real and immediate. This compilation of data around the extent of the reliance on technology in the fight against Covid-19 is a beginning.

(Graphics by Sadhana Saxena)

Originally published in ET Prime .