The CoronaCheck app and the datafication of healthcare
The covid-19 pandemic introduced a new wave of how we use and perceive Big Data connected to healthcare (Poom et al. 2020). As the number of covid-19 cases is monitored and open to access, we have now reached the point of using data as a means of entry.
The adaptation of QR-codes to allow access to public facilities and buildings such as restaurants and museums mark a significant step in the datafication of healthcare and society at large. This process of using health data to gain entry to a physical space sparks concerns regarding the use of Big Data. Questions arise concerning ethics and transparency of how the data is used (Greenberg 2020). As Boyd and Crawford (2012) have noted early on about Big Data practices, Big Data may change the way we understand society and define knowledge. Considering the rise in the use of QR-codes and their relation to sensitive health data (vaccinations and test results), it is relevant to consider the ethical and societal implications of this practice. The CoronaCheck app has been recently introduced in the Netherlands and has faced a considerable amount of opposition and critique, for example through protests and the canceling of events. It is crucial to not only look at the social impact of the app but to focus on the implications of datafication that is facilitated through the app.
Big Data Concerns
The concerns of Big Data are not new, as Boyd and Crawford have addressed the issue before. They have come up with a critical interrogation of Big Data and define it as a ‘cultural, technological, and scholarly phenomenon’ and its connection to technology, analysis, and mythology. (Boyd & Crawford 2012, 663). In other words, Big Data is formed through computational force which allows for the collection, interpreting, and analysing of large datasets while the belief exists that it allows for an objective and accurate representation of reality. However, Boyd and Crawford introduce several issues with Big Data and this myth of objectivity. For instance, the authors claim that ‘…Big Data has emerged a system of knowledge that is already changing the objects of knowledge, while also having the power to inform how we understand human networks and community’ (Boyd and Crawford 2012, 665). Although the focus here lays on the production of knowledge and research practices, it can also apply to new media technologies that influence society. The authors mention the example of Ford and the manufacturing system of mass production. ‘But it [Fordism] was more than just a new set of tools… it produced a new understanding of labor, the human relationship to work, and society at large.’ (Boyd and Crawford 2012, 665) In a similar way, we can analyse the possible implications of the CoronaCheck app in how we understand Big Data and society.
The CoronaCheck app contextualizes the practice of Big Data during a (post-)pandemic and the datafication of healthcare creating an impact on daily activities. The app requires users to register their DigiD so they can create their individual QR-code. The registration shows whether and when the user got vaccinated if they received negative test results or they have recently recovered from covid-19. The showing of a QR-code has recently become mandatory in the Netherlands for accessing public places and facilities such as public restrooms, restaurants, museums, and more. The reason I focus on Big Data with regards to the CoronaCheck app is that the health records are embedded in the app and it is interesting to look at how vulnerable this sensitive data becomes through the technology of QR-codes. The use of Big Data during the pandemic is not a new phenomenon, however, the direct access of individual health data through QR-codes and the obligation to access physical spaces marks a step towards the datafication of society.
The introduction of the CoronaCheck app highlights the current landscape of datafication and the government’s role in using Big Data as a means of access for citizens. Although QR-codes are not a new technology and have been used before, the technology is now repurposed as a post-pandemic tool through political agency (NRC 2021). The use of the CoronaCheck app illustrates data as a form capital (Sadowski 2019). In his article, Sadowski shows how data has an economic capital with political implications. The app can therefore be considered new in the sense that a governmental institution controls the information flow and encourages citizens to use the app while the app may not be fully secured. Coming back to Boyd and Crawford, the app illustrates how society may change through this practice. Citizens literally carry their personal health records around with them to gain access to certain places. At the same time, it raises questions concerning how vulnerable the data is through QR-codes, although a recent interview by NRC (2021) explained that the Dutch QR-code does not reveal very detailed information about the user.
Nonetheless, it is crucial to remain critical of how health records are used and for what purposes. Next to that, we must also consider the political implications of the app and how this large dataset of health records can be used. For example, could insurance companies in the future access the health data of citizens through QR-codes? Should unvaccinated citizens receive less insurance? The possibilities of using Big Data for covid-19 vaccinations and test results are endless. It is relevant to further research where the datafication of healthcare is headed and what its implications are for society at large.
Boyd, Danah, and Kate Crawford. 2012. “Critical Questions for Big Data: Provocations for a Cultural, Technological, and Scholarly Phenomenon.” Information, Communication & Society 15 (5): 662–79. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2012.678878.
Greenberg, Andy. 2020. “The IOS Covid App Ecosystem Has Become a Privacy Minefield.” Wired. November 13, 2020. https://www.wired.com/story/covid-19-ios-apps-privacy/.
“Hoe werkt een QR-code eigenlijk? En welke informatie zit erin verstopt?” 2021. NRC. September 22, 2021. https://www.nrc.nl/nieuws/2021/09/22/qr-code-a4059248.
Poom, Age, Olle Järv, Matthew Zook, and Tuuli Toivonen. 2020. “COVID-19 Is Spatial: Ensuring That Mobile Big Data Is Used for Social Good.” Big Data & Society 7 (2): 2053951720952088. https://doi.org/10.1177/2053951720952088.
Sadowski, Jathan. 2019. “When Data Is Capital: Datafication, Accumulation, and Extraction.” Big Data & Society 6 (1): 2053951718820549. https://doi.org/10.1177/2053951718820549.