At the outset of the pandemic, the Social Science Research Council established a range of initiatives devoted to understanding the immediate and long-term effects of Covid-19 on society. Any comprehensive account of the pandemic would be incomplete without grasping the integral role of technology in how societies are enduring and responding to Covid-19. The role of technology, in turn, is inextricably linked to the various forms of inequality that have profoundly shaped the course of the pandemic worldwide.
Today, with the support of the MacArthur and Ford Foundations through the SSRC Just Tech program, we are excited to announce the Just Tech Covid-19 Rapid-Response Grant recipients. These grantees will join a cohort of 62 Covid-19 Rapid-Response Grant recipients announced earlier this fall in conducting rapid research projects that will be essential to understanding the wide-ranging social impacts of this crisis, including eight projects supported by the Just Tech program. Grantees will ask critical questions and provide frameworks and methods that address technological interventions—from the shift to remote education to digital public health surveillance—with focused attention to issues of power, inequality, and social impact.
The lockdowns instituted to slow the spread of the coronavirus bring new urgency to the digital divide. Uneven access to the internet and devices has profound implications for education during the pandemic. Grantees will explore the impact of the transition to remote learning on communities across the world—from first-generation undergraduates in the United States to low-income families in Ghana.
Access to technology is not a salve in and of itself. Historically marginalized communities hardest hit by the virus are also often the least protected from surveillance and data overreach. Public health surveillance will be essential to stemming the virus’s spread, but opportunities for abuse are manifold. These issues, also central to the Council’s Public Health, Surveillance, and Human Rights Network, are the focus of several projects, which ask, for example, how people of color and other over-policed groups are experiencing contact tracing, how public health surveillance measures are perceived in the United States, and how queer people in South Korea are coping with social media surveillance.
Other grantees will investigate the potential role of technology in augmenting vulnerability and need during the crisis, examining the use of algorithms to select which households qualify for subsistence cash transfers in Togo, and how electronic medical records were used to identify homeless people to be moved into hotels as part of a shelter-in-place program in San Francisco.
Just Tech Covid-19 Rapid Response Grant projects will not only uncover how technology may function to disempower already-marginalized communities—they will also illuminate the ways that these communities are creatively harnessing technology to drive social change. Grantees will examine how community organizers are using digital platforms to resist gentrification in Brooklyn, how Asian migrant workers’ movements are leveraging technologies in service of their activism, how the history of technological experimentation and ingenuity in disability communities laid the groundwork for the use of remote technologies during the pandemic, and more.
Technological development, while not always assumed to be inherently positive, is often assumed to be an inevitable boon to society. These projects complicate that picture, contributing to a growing body of research that suggests that technologies can carry forward the biases of their users and creators and reinforce existing power structures. But they also point to a wealth of opportunities for harnessing technology to empower communities and construct a more just and equitable future.
The topics mentioned above represent only some of an array of innovative and important research projects. Each Just Tech Covid-19 Rapid-Response recipient will, under challenging circumstances for researchers across the globe, make an essential contribution to our understanding of the risks, opportunities, and challenges posed by technology in the context of the pandemic. Explore them all here.