MARE project: a platform to help returning to normality without disregarding the right to anonymity

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The MARÉ project was one of the selected projects by the Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT) in the scope of the 2nd edition of the call “RESEARCH 4 COVID-19.” It will have 40 thousand euros in financing and be developed in three months.

Involved in this project are the Interactive Technologies Institute (ITI/LARSyS), the Institute of Systems and Computers Engineering – Research and Development (INESC-ID), the Institute of Public Health of the University of Porto (ISPUP), and the Institute of Madeira Health Administration who will collaborate to test the first version of the platform.

Led by Professor Nuno Jardim Nunes, the project “Maré – Mobilização Anónima de Regresso à normalidade para mitigar a Epidemia de COVID-19″ [Anonymous mobilization of the return to normality to mitigate the COVID-19 epidemic], focuses on supporting the return to normality in times of pandemic, keeping into account the citizens’ security and privacy matters. More importantly,  citizens should be able to use technology to return to “normal”, knowing that they can trust in it and that it won’t compromise their security.

Keeping these in mind, the project’s team has developed a platform for tracking people digitally, which can be used to respond to the various problems generated by the pandemic, but that at the same time will guarantee the anonymity of the citizen.

Nuno Jardim Nunes, Professor at Técnico, ITI/LARSyS researcher and project leader explained that “as specialists in human factors, we are well aware of the challenges of technology adoption, as well as concerns about privacy, security, and convenience for citizens. The COVID-19 crisis is almost a perfect example of what we call a “wicked” design problem.” It was important to manage the return to normality, knowing “that people are scared, afraid and COVID-19 implies changes in our daily lives” and, therefore, it is important to “understand how to help technologically change behavior in a sustainable way.”  To solve this challenge, the project’s team decided to invert the most common solution, and instead of “asking how technology can help doctors and authorities, we asked how technology can help citizens to return to normality in a safe and reliable way. We put the citizen and not the authorities at the center of the problem .”

The research team will use modern technologies for developing applications in Flutter and Dart for the development of the platform. Also, they will find contact detection solutions that are not intrusive or involve sharing user data, for example, using WiFi.

Other dynamics may be incorporated in the platform, namely the voluntary involvement of selected groups of users who will help answer questions posed by doctors, duly approved by an ethics committee since the project has a perspective of citizen science. “The idea of Maré is to serve as a platform for tests located in specific communities and not be a general and universal solution,” added professor Nuno Jardim Nunes

Although the first prototype had already been developed on a voluntary basis, there are some important features that required additional support, which was made possible with the FCT funding. These features would be the gamification models of the platform, which may include, for example, the creation of incentives through prizes and rewards to promote behavioral change. “We want Maré to be, within three months, an open and available experimentation platform for civil and scientific communities to be able to use, and not only in the context of COVID-19,” Professor Nuno explained.

The project was already tested despite its short life: “we have already given the platform to the Regional Government of Madeira to adapt it to support the opening of tourism in the Islands,” Professor Nuno continued. “We are available to do it free of charge with other communities and with a view to helping to return to normality and mitigate the economic impacts of the crisis.”

The research team is composed of a multidisciplinary team, which involves Designers, Computer Engineers, Psychologists, and Public Health Doctors. Professor Nunes explained that “design is important since it allows us to find the right problem because often Engineering moves towards a solution without questioning whether it is trying to solve the right problem.” On the other hand, Doctors and Psychologists will “contribute indirectly, and from a citizen science perspective, to help better understand relevant public health issues.”

Professor Nuno Nunes sees the pandemic as “an opportunity to create quick interdisciplinary responses” and says that he is “involved in two other projects and they are unexpected collaborations even within Técnico that would probably never have happened had it not been for COVID-19.” He is grateful for FCT’s support in designing this solution that does not forget important values for citizens, who should not be segregated into the background by the fear generated by the pandemic.

*This article includes citations from this article published by IST.