Kevin Hall – “Underwhelming, Overwhelming, Useful? An ethnographic approach to digital contact tracing via smartphone apps”

Comment by Jan

This term’s topic “Data: What are they? What do they do?” already implies a notion of data as things that are not simply a neutral resource but come with political agency. Kevin Hall gave us a vivid idea of how easy data can develop their own life and do things that are far away from what they are intended to do.

His talk on “Underwhelming, Overwhelming, Useful? An ethnographic approach to digital contact tracing via smartphone apps” emphasises two typical nasty habits of data: Often, they fit their purpose but are not dosed rightly. Either they are not sufficient or way too much.

The idea for digital contact tracing emerged in the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa and became an important pillar in the containment of the virus. Intuitively I would have said: “What works for one virus outbreak also works for another”. Kevin used a multispecies ethnographic approach to teach us differently. As he holds a diploma in biochemistry beside his doctorate in anthropology, he is a natural specialist for the virus’ perspective. Obviously, contact tracing works better, when the involved virus produces severe symptoms from the moment it gets contagious.

Many politicians seem to have had the same intuition as I and prepared the introduction of the Corona-Warn-App following the example set by China and South Korea. As Kevin points out, a specific vision of the world is inscribed to every app design and therefore it was no big surprise that the Asian model was criticized by the German public and other stakeholders. The government had to change its plans and make the app’s data storage decentralized, fully anonymous and data economic.

The results were, as Kevin puts it: underwhelming. Ambiguous data produced a lot of uncertainty but were not able to have a significant impact on the virus containment. The app data were just not definite enough to justify a quarantine order, especially since the use of the app and the subsequent data transfer was not mandatory.

The second app Kevin analysed, was in some ways quite the opposite: The Luca App, designed to replace the analogue lists public places like restaurants had to keep to keep track of their visitors, was invented by a private company with the only purpose to fulfil the legal requirements of maintaining those lists. Therefore, political stakeholders, such as data privacy activists, had much less influence on the app, which resulted in an app, which is consistently criticized for its data handling.

This also led to an opposite effect in the bureaus of the public health offices that Kevin investigated ethnographically. Since the use was obligatory but not limited to the criteria of sufficient contact length like the Corona-Warn-App, a heap of data got produced. Instead of fulfilling the intended use of facilitating the work of the health offices, the app produced additional, if not overwhelming, work because the endless lists of people visiting the same place at approximately the same time needed to be manually filtered down to the meaningful contacts.

In the end, the quintessence of Kevin’s lecture was a bit trivial: If you want data to make sense, you must talk to those it should make sense for. The fact that only Kevin and the developers of the widely unknown app DAICY, which encourages the user to write a diary of contacts actually talked to public health offices about their needs, is a scandal in my opinion. I hope that Kevin’s amazing work helps us to handle the next pandemic’s data more useful.

About Kevin Hall:

Kevin Hall holds a phd from the Goethe University that recently became official with the publication of his phd thesis titled: “Viren im Blick. Überwachung und Sichtbarkeit der Influenza in Deutschland at campus.” The book explores how diseases are visualized and become visual artifacts based on ethnographic research.

After obtaining a Diplom in biochemistry from the Goethe university in 2008, Kevin moved into sociology and philosophy and finally to anthropology. Kevin’s work is ethnographic and comparative. His analysis shows attention to detail and the specific entanglements of human and virus politics. In his work, viruses, insects and other critters become more than human, they have their own stories, histories and troubles. For a list of publications of Kevin Hall please follow this link:

Kevin currently holds a research associate position at the Philipps University in Marburg where he conducts ethnographic research on Covid-19 contact tracing in public health offices. His work is in collaboration with the German insitute for the containment of infectious diseases (Robert-Koch Institut).