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Covid-19 related ICT4D master research: m-health-based early detection of infectuous diseases

Siying Zhang’s master research was about how to design a participatory Covid-19 app. The events of this year 2020, have more than ever demonstrated the link between social networks and the spread of infectious diseases. No one can deny that opportunities are offered by the digitized society to prevent and control a contagious virus. However, the way in which this should be done continues (rightly) to generate an avalanche of public discussion.

It is clear that the global spread of Covid-19 and the unpredictability of this pandemic is scaring people. Aggravated by the ubiquitous and recurring news of new cases and statistics, there is often a general call for stricter and top-down interventions to prevent the rapid spread of the virus (and to discourage or prevent direct, physical social contact between people).

Meanwhile, there are also people who criticize the currently imposed interventions, arguing that it carries risks of (irreversible) bureaucratisation of society, and that information technology (nowadays more than ever dominated by a few giant private companies), may lead to permanent surveillance, restricting natural, interpersonal communication and community life.
International master student Siying Zhang did her master research at VU Amsterdam and studied the (different) attitudes of people in China and the Netherlands, with respect to a so-called health surveillance system, often called the “Covid-19 app”. People’s attitudes are highly relevant for the design, (which includes the collection of so-called “system and user requirements”), of such an app. Siying’s study shows how cultural features and contextual differences between the two countries/cultures affect the  outcomes of the use case and requirements analysis process for such an app.

Starting by a thorough context analysis, doing interviews with users and health professionals in China and the Netherlands, and posing questions to local users, Siying showed alternative scenarios for the development of such an m-health app. Cultural factors, collaboration between developers and users, respect to users’s concerns in the complexity of their own local context, and an open dialogue are the main ingredients of her method. Siying proposes that  “participatory” scenarios  for a “Corona app” should be considered. These are still to be developed.  This discussion needs to be brought into the public debate.

Siying Zhang used an adapted version — given the needs of the current dynamic, global circumstances with respect to Covid-19 — of the adaptive methodology and framework ICT4D 3.0. This framework was originally designed and used, since the early 2010s, for collaborative development of ICT systems with people in low resource environments in rural Africa (Mali, Burkina Faso and Ghana). The framework has also been successfully adapted by students from VU and UNIMAS in joint Community Service Learning projects in Sarawak, Malaysia in 2018 and 2019, in a field-based course (also for Computer Science students): ICT4D in the Field. Now aa=gain this framework has shown its usefulness in a (quite interdisciplinary and intercultural) study on the differences between the Netherlands and China in this respect. To learn more about the research of Siying Zhang: find her master thesis in this [PDF].