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UT advises on the use of technology to control coronavirus

Apps designed to help fight the coronavirus –  the government is currently making a major effort to develop these. The development and implementation of such digital tools needs to be done quickly, safely and carefully. Therefore, the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport (VWS) has set up two taskforces within their programme 'Realisation of digital support', that are called 'Digital support to combat COVID-19' and 'Behavioural Sciences'. Two UT professors are part of these taskforces.

UT Professor Lisette van Gemert-Pijnen is a member of both taskforces. She also participates in the supervisory committee that advises the Minister of VWS, Hugo De Jonge, on the possibilities and the use of digital support. Professor Peter-Paul Verbeek is a member of the taskforce 'Behavioural Sciences', which provides advice on how to ensure that an increasing number of people is willing to accept and adopt the apps. The members of these taskforces provide advice on the possibilities that digital support has to offer in science and in every-day practice and also deals with the ethical questions that need to be answered.

Two types of digital support

Commissioned by the government, a special development and construction team is currently working on two types of digital support. The first application focuses on identifying contacts and sources of infection. Which digital tool can support the Municipal Health Service (GGD) in their work, tracing sources of infection and contacts? Can this possibly be facilitated? The objective is to be able to have a complete overview of all people with whom patients have been in direct contact even faster.

Lisette van Gemert: "This digital instrument supports the work the GGD already does: contact and source tracing. It will not reduce, increase or change the work of the GGD; we only hope to be able to identify more people who have been in contact with an infected person, more rapidly." The second type of support should help gain more insight into the number of people infected with the coronavirus. Self-monitoring is the basic principle here: how can people monitor themselves to learn whether they are infected, simply by registering physical symptoms?

Importance of scientific knowledge in development of apps

The taskforce 'Digital support to combat COVID-19' focuses on responsible development of digital solutions which can aid contact and source tracing, as well as self-monitoring, through the registration of symptoms. Which requirements must the apps meet? Van Gemert: "The development of such an app is done by a multidisciplinary team, under high pressure. It is extremely important to keep focusing on future users: what do they need, what do they wish to know? How do we make sure everyone is able and willing to use the app? UT has a lot of experience with user-centred design, so our knowledge is of tremendous help. In the end, we want everyone to be able to use the apps voluntarily because that really helps to gain more insight and create added value".

Behavioural sciences essential

This underlines the importance of the 'Taskforce Behavioural Sciences', the second taskforce of which both Van Gemert and Verbeek are members. Van Gemert: "This taskforce examines the various types of digital support from the perspective of behavioural sciences. This is crucial because a great deal is asked of people. Many people are suspicious or do not see the use or importance of using digital tools. Remember, a virus such as this is invisible and not everybody becomes seriously ill.

But only together will we be able to control the COVID-19 virus, so it has to be crystal clear that using the intended apps will benefit both yourself and others. UT has a lot of knowledge about and years of experience in developing and implementing technology to influence behaviour". Peter-Paul Verbeek adds: "These apps raise many ethical questions. What about privacy and reliability? And very important: how do they fit in with our democracy? By using these apps, what relationship will ensue between citizens and the government? These ethical issues arise not only from the design of the apps, but also from the way in which they are to be embedded in society'.

Supervisory committee advises continuously

Complementary to the taskforces, a supervisory committee has been established within this 'Realisation of digital support' programme. Van Gemert is a member of this committee as well. The committee advises the Minister of Health, Welfare and Sport on an ongoing basis - partly by reference to the proposals of both taskforces. How do the proposals contribute to controlling the CIVID-19 virus? And does a proposal comply with all necessary requirements? Van Gemert: "I consider myself to be a linking pin. I am able to, because I am a member of both the taskforces and the supervisory committee. This allows me to advise and offer my thoughts across the board. I truly consider this an added value. As a matter of fact, I have also been appointed as a member of the programme committee of the COVID-19 programme of ZonMw. This enables me to make maximum use of my expertise and experience in the development and implementation of technology in the fight against zoonoses, because that is what the coronavirus obviously is. And I am glad to be able to do that."  

Prof. Dr. Lisette van Gemert-Pijnen and Prof. Dr. Peter-Paul Verbeek are both working at the Faculty of Behavioural, Management and Social Sciences (BMS) of the University of Twente. Their fields of research are respectively Persuasive Health Technology and Philosophy of Technology. Peter-Paul Verbeek is also scientific co-director of the University of Twente's DesignLab.