Digital Humanism: Informatics in Times of COVID-19

  • By Claudia Vitt
  • 2020-05-18
  • Workshop
  • News
  • WWTF
  • Social Responsibility

Renowned experts met in our online workshop on May 14th—St. Corona’s day of all days—and discussed the digital transformation of society.

Informatics provides the necessary infrastructure for realizing online workshops like this one.
Informatics provides the necessary infrastructure for realizing online workshops like this one.

Informatics and IT, in general, provide the necessary infrastructure to keep the world running — think of working from home, distant learning, and information sharing, especially in times of crisis. Informatics is also essential in current coronavirus related research, such as in pharmaceutics, in forecasting virus spread, or evaluating economic measures.

Digital Transformation of Society

What is more, the coronavirus has almost wholly moved us into the online world within a few days. We are experiencing a real-life experiment: the digital transformation of our society. This situation raises several issues related to our topic of Digital Humanism, the intricate relationship between Informatics and society. At the event, we discussed this accelerated transformation in its political, ethical, and social dimensions. We also reviewed the contribution of Informatics to managing the corona crisis, discussed the current urgent privacy issues, looked at the impact on society and politics, and what it means to be a digital human in and post COVID-19 times.

The Digital Human

Hannes Werthner from TU Wien Informatics welcomed the speakers and audience of the online workshop. “Informatics keeps the system running in this crisis. It is the operating system of our society and economy, and digital humanism deals with the complex relationship and the interplay of humans and machines.” He introduced the first speaker Edward A. Lee from the University of Berkeley, who talked about “The New Urgency of Digital Humanism As We Become Digital Humans” and saw a rapid change in worldwide culture, “through a virus taking over the world.” Lee also mentioned that “a pandemic is not a war,” but that the coronavirus had a significant impact on society and humans. “How are people dating? And how are we going to handle votes?” “Technology is affecting society, and we cannot handle it as easily as we think,” Lee is convinced.

Informatics Managing the Corona Crisis

Lynda Hardman from CWI in Amsterdam moderated the next session on the crisis management role of Informatics. She gave the screen to Niki Popper from TU Wien Informatics. He presented his talk on “Real -Time Simulation Based Decision Support in Health Care Systems—the COVID-19 Crisis”. One interesting effect he noted in this pandemic: “It is very impressive—you do model calculation, and politicians react within two days by increasing the number of hospital beds!”

Andrea Ganna from FIMM – Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland talked about the “COVID-19 Host Genetics Initiative, How to Enable Data Sharing Across 120 Studies and 600 Researchers” and explained the intersection between epidemiology, genetics, and statistics.

Challenges: Security and Privacy

Erich Prem from eutema & TU Wien Informatics was the moderator for the next session on security and privacy issues in times like these. He handed over to Walter Hötzendorfer from the Research Institute—Digital Human Rights Center with a talk on “Digital Humanism through Privacy by Design and Architecture: The Case of the Corona Apps.” Walter Hötzendorfer commented, “We have a pandemic—let’s use technology to tackle it!” In his work, he deals with the interface of law, technology, and society. He worked with the Austrian Red Cross concerning the Stop Corona App and is convinced that there is no trade-off between privacy and health. Whereas people were installing tracking apps such as fitness trackers, they were very doubtful about the “most privacy-friendly and best-scrutinized app” from the Red Cross.

Clara Neppel from IEEE presented her findings on “Privacy, and the Choice Between Surveillance and Citizen Empowerment.” She compared the freedom of movement versus safety to early 20th-century traffic. She elaborated on our digital identities, and that we had little control over our digital profiles and our “digital self.” For questions like “Where are the red lines of our digital profiles?” and the clarity of IP-rights, she recommended to develop new frameworks and ethically designed standards benefitting humanity.

Amy Mahn from NIST, USA, introduced “Cybersecurity Considerations for Telework,” including virtual meeting security.

“Is this another post-9/11 moment? Or another post-Snowden moment?” asked Joshua Franco from Amnesty Tech in his presentation “Human Rights Online: Where are We and Where Will Pandemic Response Take Us?” He pointed out that surveillance measures adopted to address the coronavirus pandemic must be lawful, necessary, proportionate, and time-bound. Apart from that, they should also protect the rights to privacy and non-discrimination and be transparent and accountable.

ICT and Politics

George Metakides, President of Digital Enlightenment Forum and Visiting Professor, University of Southampton, presented “New Policy Directions for European Digital Sovereignty” in the closing session of the workshop. He called attention to the fact that the workshop on COVID-19 took place on May 14th—the day of St. Corona of all days. According to him, “the quest for digital sovereignty was accelerated by the pandemic, and connectivity was personified by the big platforms like Google and Amazon.” Especially after the pandemic, “we need to make sure that they serve the public interest.”

The workshop was held as a video conference and was live-streamed on YouTube.

It was supported by and co-organized with the Digital Enlightenment Forum Brussels, IEEE, Informatics Europe, WWTF, and the Faculty of Informatics, TU Wien.