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BKC Policy Practice: Digital Pandemic Response provides practical guidance, expert opinion for decision makers

BKC Policy Practice: Digital Pandemic Response provides practical guidance, expert opinion for decision makers

Informing the use of digital tools and data for COVID-19

Public and private policymakers are facing difficult questions about using digital tools and data for mitigating the global COVID-19 pandemic, and they are collaborating with the new BKC Policy Practice: Digital Pandemic Response program at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society to work through them. 

The Digital Pandemic Response team works with decision makers as they navigate this uncharted territory. Recently, for instance, members proposed steps governors should take to improve the current testing delays in the U.S. 

“Dealing with the pandemic is not just a medical issue, or a public health issue, or a technological issue. It’s a leadership issue,” said Jonathan Zittrain,  BKC co-founder and Faculty Director. “Many state and local government officials have been working diligently not only to respond locally, but to coordinate nationally. There are many gaps to fill and new institutional relationships to forge for that to happen.” 

Digital Pandemic Response is led by Zittrain, BKC Executive Director Urs Gasser, and BKC Faculty Associate Margaret Bourdeaux, also of the Harvard Medical School’s Global Public Policy and Social Change program and the Harvard Kennedy School’s Security and Global Health Project, with engagement from BKC staff and experts from the broader BKC community. The program is supported by the Ford Foundation, Hewlett Foundation, and MacArthur Foundation.

“COVID-19 presents inherently complex, interdisciplinary concerns at the intersection of public health, law and human rights, data and technology,” Gasser said. “Digital Pandemic Response brings together members of our community to work on some of the hardest problems and team up to develop practical guidance that can inform decision makers, but also collaborators around the world dealing with similar challenges.” 

The program is also convening a Digital Pandemic Response Working Group, co-chaired by Bourdeaux, of experts from academia, civil society, the public sector, and industry. Current working group members are: Liza Bales, Facebook; Maria Barsallo Lynch, Belfer Center; Maggie Brunner, National Governors Association; Caroline Buckee, Harvard Chan School of Public Health; Glenn Cohen, Harvard Law School & Petrie-Flom Center; Kade Crockford, Massachusetts ACLU; Yves Daccord, International Committee of the Red Cross; Mary Gray, Microsoft Research; Louis Gutierrez, Commonwealth Care Alliance Contact Tracing Collaborative Team; Isaac Kohane, Harvard Medical School; SJ Klein, MIT Media Lab; Jane Horvath, Apple; Louise Ivers, MGH Global Health Department; Ali Lange, Google; Andrew McLaughlin, COVID-19 Research and Technology Task Force; Martha Minow, Harvard Law School; Ruth Okediji, Harvard Law School & Berkman Klein Center; Claire-Cecile Pierre, Harbor Health Services, Inc; Annmarie Sasdi, Harvard Medical School; Latanya Sweeney, Harvard University; Zeynep Tufecki, University of North Carolina; Daniel Weitzner, MIT PACT; and Lauren Zabierek, Belfer Center.

As the pandemic continues, the Digital Pandemic Response program is connecting with a range of related groups, from the private and public sectors, who are spearheading work related to mitigating the pandemic’s impact, particularly on the most marginalized and at-risk, while protecting privacy and civil liberties. 

“Addressing health security crises, like COVID-19, requires close collaboration and problem solving across diverse disciplines and sectors,” Bourdeaux said. “We aim to offer an important forum for policy leaders and decision makers to consider problems they are working on from multiple perspectives.” 

Challenges posed by COVID-19 are numerous and multi-faceted, with new questions and concerns emerging related to different aspects of the virus, from detection, privacy and civil liberties concerns, to the longer term legal and structural implications. The Digital Pandemic Response team is first focusing on the implementations of digital contact tracing within the United States. 

"Dealing with an unprecedented set of health, economic, technological, and civil liberties challenges requires many people and institutions working together across disciplines and spheres," said Larry Kramer, President of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. "The Hewlett Foundation is pleased to partner with Harvard's Berkman Klein Center and its learning network to foster collaboration and build better interfaces between public health and digital tech efforts at a critical moment in time."

The policy practice has provided a concise video primer on digital contact tracing, and members of the Digital Pandemic Response Working Group shared their thoughts on digital contact tracing in a recent essay series for the BKC Medium Collection. Students from Harvard Law School contributed to the program vis-à-vis reports on anti-COVID technology and an ongoing “Country Spotlight” series of briefing documents on COVID apps from around the world. In addition, four members of the working group participated in a public panel, co-sponsored by the Berkman Klein Center, exploring how digital data and public health tools might usefully supplement the well-established practice of contact tracing. 


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