COVID-19 contact tracing reveals ethical tradeoffs between public health and privacy

Michael Brown has written a nice article in the U of Alberta folio on COVID-19 contact tracing reveals ethical tradeoffs between public health and privacyThe article quotes me extensively on the subject of the ethics of these new bluetooth contact tracing tools. In the interview I tried the emphasize the importance of knowledge and consent.

  • Users of these apps should know that they are being traced through them, and
  • Users should consent to their use.

There are a variety of these apps from the system pioneered by Singapore called TraceTogether to its Alberta cousin ABTraceTogether. There are also a variety of approaches to tracing people from using credit card records to apps like TraceTogether. The EFF has a good essay on Protecting Civil Rights During a Public Health Crisis that I adapt here to provide guidelines for when one might gather data without knowledge or consent:

  • Medically necessary: There should be a clear and compelling explanation as to how this will save lives.
  • Personal information proportionate to need: The information gathered should fit the need and go no further.
  • Information handled by health informatics specialists: The gathering and processing should be handled by health informatics units, not signals intelligence or security services.
  • Deleted: It should be deleted once it is no longer needed.
  • Not be organized due to vulnerable demographics: The information should not be binned according to stereotypical or vulnerable demographics unless there is a compelling need. We should be very careful that we don’t use the data to further disadvantage groups.
  • Use reviewed afterwards: The should be a review after the crisis is over.
  • Transparency: Government should transparent about what they are gathering and why.
  • Due process: There should be open processes for people to challenge the gathering of their information or to challenge decisions taken as a result of such information.

Locative Gaming in the time of COVID-19

Jessie Marchessault at Concordia has a nice essay on the TAG site on Locative Gaming in the time of COVID-19. I hadn’t thought of how Niantic would be responding to Covid-19 and changing their locative games, except when I saw a small group obviously still playing in a park the other day. As Marchessault points out, the community and Niantic have adapted. Niantic has found ways to make the game playable at home, but they have also done it in a way that increases revenue.

It would be interesting to see if they could include bluetooth proximity services that might tell you that you are getting too close to other players.

Digital Synergies Launch Event


Today I gave a short talk at the Digital Synergies Launch Event. The launch included neat talks by colleagues including:

I showed and talked about Lexigraphi.ca – The Dictionary of Worlds in the Wild. This is a social site where people can upload pictures of text outside of books and documents and tag the words – text like tatoos, graffiti, store signs and other forms of public textuality.

Harry Potter: Wizards Unite

Screen Shot of Harry Potter: Wizards UniteI’ve been playing the augmented reality game, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite and rather enjoying it. It is a locative game that resembles Ingress and, in fact, is from the same company Niantic which also made Pokémon Go. It encourages you to walk around to finish daily goals and to get portkeys.

In the game you trace spells to free people who have been confounded and you get into duels. It is free to play, but you have to buy gold with which to buy other things if you want to move the game along faster. I found that I didn’t need much gold as long as I didn’t want to play for more than an hour a day.

The game has a Harry Potter feel with a certain amount of humour. At times I felt I was grinding and there were bugs. I liked the portkey idea which lets one see through to another space.

Skip the bus: this post-apocalyptic jaunt is the only New York tour you’ll ever need

Operation Jane Walk appropriates the hallmarks of an action roleplaying game – Tom Clancy’s The Division (2016), set in a barren New York City after a smallpox pandemic – for an intricately rendered tour that digs into the city’s history through virtual visits to some notable landmarks. Bouncing from Stuyvesant Town to the United Nations Headquarters and down the sewers, a dry-witted tour guide makes plain how NYC was shaped by the Second World War, an evolving economy and the ideological jousting between urban theorists such as Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. Between stops, the guide segues into musical interludes and poetic musings, but doesn’t let us forget the need to brandish a weapon for self-defence. The result is a highly imaginative film that interrogates the increasingly thin lines between real and digital worlds – but it’s also just a damn good time.

Aeon has a great tour of New York using Tom Clancy’s The Division, Skip the bus: this post-apocalyptic jaunt is the only New York tour you’ll ever need. It looks like someone actually gives tours this way – a new form of urban tourism. What other cities could one do?

‎GoQueer Locative Game

‎Queer places are, by definition, sites of accretion, where stories, memories, and experiences are gathered. Queer place, in particular, is reliant on ephemeral histories, personal moments and memories. GoQueer intends to integrate these personal archives with places for you to discover.

I recently downloaded and started playing the iOS version of ‎GoQueer from the App Store. It is a locative game from my colleague Dr. Maureen Engel.

Engel reflected about this project in a talk on YouTube titled Go Queer: A Ludic, Locative Media Experiment. Engel nicely theorizes her game not once, but in a doubled set of reflections show how theorizing isn’t a step in project design, but continuous thinking-through.

You can also see an article reflecting on this game by the title, Perverting Play: Theorizing a Queer Game Mechanic.

Torn Apart: Nimble Digital Humanities

Torn Apart is a curation and visualization of publicly available data concerning ICE, CBP facilities, and usages. Also lists of allied and pro-immigrant facilities.

At DH 2018 I heard Roopika Risam speak about the impressive critical digital humanities Torn Apart / Separados project she is part of. (See my conference notes here.) The project is rightly getting attention. For example, the Inside Higher Ed has a story on Digital Humanities for Social Good. This story presents Torn Apart / Separados as an answer to critiques about the digital humanities that they are not critical enough and/or lack interpretative value. (See Stanley Fish’s Stop Trying to Sell the Humanities.) The Inside Higher Ed article rightly points out that there have been socially engaged digital humanities projects for some time.

What I find impressive and think is truly important is how nimble the project is. This project was imagined and implemented in “real” time – ie. it was developed in response to events unfolding in the news. It was also developed without a grant and by a distributed team of volunteers. Thats what computing in the humanities should be – a way to think through issues critically not a way to get funding.

Information Geographies

Thanks to a note from Domenico Fiormonte to Humanist I came across the Information Geographies page at the Oxford Internet Institute. The OII has been producing interesting maps that show aspects of the internet. The one pictured above shows the distribution of Geographic Knowledge in Freebase. Given the importance of Freebase to Google’s Knowledge Graph it is important to understand the bias of its information to certain locations.

Geographic content in Freebase is largely clustered in certain regions of the world. The United States accounts for over 45% of the overall number of place names in the collection, despite covering about 2% of the Earth, less than 7% of the land surface, and less than 5% of the world population, and about 10% of Internet users. This results in a US density of one Freebase place name for every 1500 people, and far more place names referring to Massachusetts than referring to China.

Domenico Fiormonte’s email to Humanist (Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 29, No. 824) argues that “It is our responsibility to preserve cultural diversity, and even relatively small players can make a difference by building more inclusive ‘representations’.” He argues that we need to be open about the cultural and linguistic biases of the tools and databases we build.

Traсes – Augmented reality gifts

From a New Scientist article I learned about Traсes. Traces lets you leave a bundle of information (like a song and some greetings) for someone at a particular GPS location (and at a particular time.) You can thus use it to add gifts for other people to find. It strikes me a neat use of augmented reality. I can imagine all sorts of uses for it beyond gifts:

  • One could use it to leave information about a place.
  • It could be used by artists to leave AR works as imagined by William Gibson in Spook Country.
  • One could create alternate reality games with it.

Alas, it is not available in the Canadian App Store.