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Examples of project challenges

Climate change: smart thermostats

"Households account for about 25% of total energy consumption in the Netherlands. Heating, generated primarily from fossil fuels such as natural gas (75%), is an important part of this. As such, interventions aimed at influencing household energy consumption can have a large impact on the environment. In 2009, the Dutch Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) calculated that households can feasibly reduce consumption by as much as 33%. What kind of interventions can help to reduce household energy consumption? Many interventions aim to reduce energy needs by encouraging household insulation or to make alternatives such as solar panels and heat pumps more feasible. Other interventions are aimed at influencing individual behaviour. For instance, smart thermostats provide better insight in energy consumption, allowing individuals to adjust behaviour accordingly. Some energy providers seek to influence behaviour by applying insights from gamification, showing individuals how they compare to averages or their neighbours, for instance.

Understandably, the issue of energy consumption is “wicked”, and the stakes are high. In this project, you will explore the promises and limitations of smart thermostats, as part of the larger and complex issue of household energy consumption. You can draw on data from the Central Statistics Bureau, Ministries, municipal sources, and energy companies. This quantitative data provides knowledge about what is happening in society at large. To understand individual behaviour and perceptions about interventions such as smart thermostats, you will also engage with a variety of stakeholders, such as homeowners, renters, housing corporations, business actors, and policy-makers at multiple levels.”

Surveillance: COVID-19 Apps

“Amidst dramatic changes in society in response to the global COVID-19   epidemic, the Dutch government called on the help of, among many others, app developers: “Apps can increase people’s agency in tracing infections and reporting health issues. This supports, accelerates, and alleviates source and contact studies of the public health service (GGD).” Within a week, 750 entrepreneurs offered “smart digital solutions”, of which seven proposals were shortlisted for rapid development.

Simultaneously, a range of experts, scholars, stakeholders and society at large were invited to contribute advice and criticism. Many expressed privacy and security concerns, questioning techno-solutionism, and calling attention to the far-reaching implications of apps that monitor health or trace contacts. One petition cites Michel Foucault: “Surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action.” (Foucault, 1975).

Developments in eHealth, more generally, have been on the rise in recent years. For some, insights facilitated by apps or mobile devices may improve access to evidence-based information about one’s health, thus empowering individual agency. Remote medical attention can potentially alleviate demands on strained healthcare systems. For instance, apps can help patients to persevere in therapy or treatment regimes or facilitate medical advice in remote areas.

At the same time, companies such as Apple and Google market tracking devices such as smart watches, providing insight in the (un)healthy behaviour of individuals. For others, access to (and monetization of) such highly sensitive and personal information raises concerns about privacy and surveillance. For instance, detailed information can be used to tailor products or policies to specific segments of the population at large, with far-reaching societal implications - as pointed out by the critics of the COVID-19 apps.

It is clear that private health information is both highly valuable and controversial. In this project, you will reconstruct policy processes regarding COVID-19 apps, to gain insight in questions about (network) governance, the morality of regulating digital interventions, and trade-offs between the  individual’s privacy versus societal security in the context of a pandemic. You can draw on data about hospitalizations and intensive care capacity, as well as other epidemiological data, from the perspective of controlling the spread of the disease and having to bear responsibility for risk management under conditions of uncertainty. You will also draw on the perspectives of developers, critics, scholars, and users of apps to understand the practices and meanings crucial to the design of digital interventions."