Researching digital technologies and Covid-19: an interdisciplinary problem demands an interdisciplinary response

Screen reads 'Contact detection Is switched on'.
Photo: Markus Winkler, Unsplash

Under any state of emergency or crisis there is a risk that intensified surveillance can rapidly become legitimized and then normalised, cementing a dangerous new status quo.

Dr Monique Mann is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Deakin University, and an expert in surveillance. Her 2020 Incubator project tackles just this issue. Dr Mann lectures in surveillance in Deakin Criminology (in both undergraduate and postgraduate programs), and her research focuses on surveillance and social justice. In this blogpost we learn about the confluence of factors that gave rise to the interdisciplinary project that Dr Mann is leading, the pros and cons of researching a ‘live’ problem, and the import of a genuinely interdisciplinary approach.

In 2020 Professor Catherine Bennett and I were invited to give evidence at the Parliamentary Inquiry into the Victorian Government’s Covid-19 contact tracing system and testing regime. The SSN grant opportunity arose at just the right time, in response to unfolding events, and the interest of a stellar team who could tackle the many issues that relate to the design, development and deployment of digital technologies during the pandemic. The team brings together diverse expertise: Dr Luke Heemsbergen (works in Digital Media and Communications, with a STS focus), Professor Catherine Bennett (Deakin’s Chair in Epidemiology), Ass. Prof Martin Hensher (an Associate professor in Health System Financing and Organisation) and Dr Paul Cooper (who also works in digital health economics with a focus on surveillance).

Drawing on our diverse interests and expertise, we devised a set of research questions about the contexts, effectiveness, private interests, and health outcomes of the use of digital technologies in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We have just wrapped up our international fieldwork after conducting interviews with a range of stakeholders (from health, governance, tech) in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Singapore.

The public health impetus of a pandemic means we must ask: ‘Is this necessary? Is this proportionate to a legitimate public health aim? How can we achieve public health objectives whilst ensuring safeguards are in place and rights are protected?’.  Working with Professor Bennet and other health experts is crucial in addressing these types of questions. This collaboration has been productive to confront questions of, and tensions between individual and collective good.

Bird’s Eye view of people walking. Photo: Timon Studler, Unsplash 

Researching a ‘live’ issue as it unfolds has resulted in both challenges and opportunities. It has been positive to be able to speak to the media and engage in public debates that require our input as the situation unfolds. On the other hand, we have faced practical challenges. It was important for us to talk to those on the ‘frontline’ using the technologies in question, especially contact tracers and those working in the health response. However, their intense workloads and the stress upon them raised the ethical issue of whether we should even ask of their time for research interviews. With the health system under immense pressure, we have had to factor in considerations such as this as we undertook our fieldwork.

A research topic that mutates alongside a mutating virus makes for an explosive scope and requires a flexible and responsive team. This requires a delicate balance in terms of framing and we had to be ready to shift (and limit) our focus, too. Our project has expanded from initially looking at contact tracing applications such as CovidSafe, to the use of QR codes for mandatory venue check in, vaccination passports and other proposed digital tools such as the use of facial recognition and geolocative apps for enforcing home quarantine requirements.

The SSN grant has enabled me as an EMCAR to assemble and lead an incredible team of experts. This has been great fun, and an opportunity to learn.  The problem may have challenged us with its shifting focus. However, it is precisely this – the problem driving us, not vice-versa – that makes for compelling interdisciplinary work.

You can learn more about Dr Mann’s work at this ADI/SSN seminar recording titled ‘COVID-UP: Trust and Transparency in Contact Tracing Applications’ and her SSN panel discussion ‘COVIDSafe® : Tracing, surveillance and other organised irresponsibilities‘ . You can browse her media engagement on this topic at both and at the Brisbane Times. 


This is the fourth and final feature in the 2021 ‘Interdisciplinary experiences series’