blog | 30.04.2020 | Simon Joss

Governing the COVID-19 pandemic in the ‘smart city’

Has the coronavirus pandemic hastened the arrival of the smart city around the globe?

After years of searching debate about "actually existing smart cities", the race is on to develop a range of digital technologies designed to get us out of the current lockdown and help steer us through the ‘new normal’ in the coming months and possibly years. Cities are central to this effort because, on one hand, they will play a critical role in the economic recovery and, on the other, urban density poses significant challenges to maintaining effective social distancing.

If COVID-19 propels a flurry of technological innovations, then the findings from our recent international research on smart cities can offer some useful guidance. Across 27 cities surveyed, we identified a significant ‘socio-technical bifurcation’: while some advocate an essentially techno-centric approach, others caution that technology alone will not bring about ‘smarter’ cities and communities. This tension could well be played out in the current pandemic, too. Consequently, in this blog I’ll argue for a socio-technical approach based on transparency and public engagement.

Using contact tracing apps

Among diverse technological innovations, special attention is currently paid to contact tracing apps that promise to allow countries to ease out of draconian lockdowns by closely tracing, and thus keeping at bay, ongoing virus transmission. The table below summarises some of the related developments underway (one recent compilation counted 56 apps across 29 countries). Either GPS (location tracker) or Bluetooth (nearby-object tracker), or a combination of the two, are deployed to provide updates and alerts where someone reporting COVID-19 symptoms has been in proximity with others. The individual should benefit, as (s)he can responsibly manage their everyday life; and society at large should benefit from aggregated data on evolving transmission levels. A comparison across a range of apps reveals significant differences in the overall design approach. For example, some apps require personal user data (gender, age, residence location), whereas others operate on a more anonymised basis. Again, some apps are mandatory to gain access to some public services, while others rely on voluntarism. These, and other, differences expose two important facets: (1) technological innovation is never value-free, but imbued with social and cultural norms and preferences. Consequently, (2) it is only to be expected that probing questions arise in public debate about the design and application of new technologies.

Table 1. International examples of COVID-19 contact tracing apps
(Status: 28 April 2020. In order of launch dates. Apps under development excluded.)

Country Contact tracing app Data features

Close Contact

(‘Alipay Health Code’)


  • Personal data capture
  • Self-reporting & government surveillance
  • 'Quick response' code
South Korea

Corona 100m


  • Personal data capture
  • GPS location data
  • Alerts within 100m radius



  • Anonymised ID
  • Bluetooth tracker (no GPS)
  • No centralised data repository

Aarogya Setu


  • Personal data sharing optional
  • GPS location data & Bluetooth tracker
  • Plans to link to ‘e-pass’ (access control app)



  • Personal data (anonymised for research)
  • GPS location data & Bluetooth tracker
  • Centralised data repository (30 day limit)



  • Personal or pseudonymised data
  • Bluetooth tracker
  • No centralised data repository

Sources including: Top10VPN; Wikipedia; Privacy International. Table created by Professor Simon Joss.

Addressing privacy concerns

Unsurprisingly, privacy concerns have surfaced, as data collecting and sharing have to be balanced with protecting users’ privacy. Civil rights campaigners want reassurance, for example, that the state does not use contact tracing apps to track individuals or particular communities. Even if this is not intended by the designs, it may still result from the application of existing surveillance laws (e.g. RIPA in the UK) or, indeed, emergency legislation in response to the pandemic (e.g. in Israel). There is also concern that data collected on central repositories could continue to be used for other purposes once the pandemic is over, and that mobile phone operators and tech companies could have lasting access to users’ Bluetooth tracking information. To help protect users’ privacy, app designers can, for example, build in active opt-in functions, in line with a voluntary approach. And rather than storing sensitive data on a central repository, this can be done on individual devices, with only aggregated data captured and analysed centrally. Such a ‘civic app’ design approach is pursued by Matthew Chalmers and his team at the University of Glasgow, and forms part of our interdisciplinary work on ‘future cities’.

Ensuring the technology is effective

Equally important, questions arise over implementational effectiveness. For example, from an individual perspective, a contact tracing app may be of little use if the reporting of COVID-19 symptoms is not supported by nearby testing and health and social service infrastructures. Indeed, a lack of integrated services may inadvertently lead users to experience heightened anxiety instead of providing help and reassurance. Municipal and other local authorities have a particularly heavy burden of responsibility, given the appearance of COVID-19 clusters in urban areas, albeit often with depleted budgets following years of austerity (see related research by Annette Hastings and colleagues on ‘austerity urbanism’ and its impact on poor and marginalized communities). From a wider public health perspective, approx. 60% of the population/community (or about 80% of smartphone users) need to regularly use contact tracing apps, to generate sufficiently robust aggregate data to guide social distancing and health interventions. In Singapore – a global ‘smart city’ leader – the uptake of its TraceTogether app has reached 20% so far. This makes it clear how essential public trust and confidence are if smart technology is to play an effective and meaningful role in managing the ongoing pandemic.

Embracing transparency and public engagement

The inevitably complex social reality of contact tracing and similar smart apps – which stands in contrast to the technological deterministic view of some smart city advocates – has two major implications. First, transparency is essential: notwithstanding the urgency to produce solutions, both the basis on which technological applications are developed, and the processes by which this is done, need to be clearly explained and subjected to public scrutiny. Since information is pivotal to controlling the pandemic, it requires a culture of openness. Second, public engagement should be encouraged and actively sought, to give agency so that individuals and communities can co-govern the COVID-19 pandemic with shared responsibility. This, not least, would go some way to building the smart city "from the ground up" and making it more "citizen-centric", as has recently been called for.


Simon Joss

Simon Joss is the Associate Director of Policy Engagement at UBDC and also leads on our Urban Governance research. He is Professor of Urban Futures at the University of Glasgow and co-founder of the International Eco-Cities Initiative.

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    Excellent. The outcry is now more than ever, citizens must be central to claim in building a "smart city".

  • 3 years ago
  • |

    Excellent. The outcry is now more than ever, citizens must be central to claim in building a "smart city".

  • 3 years ago
  • |