May 26, 2020

Covid-19 Trackers, Urban Living Lab, Worker Rights & more.



Hope you're all staying safe and sane!

As we try and make sense of the current crisis, the need for systems thinking stands out - to be able to think through, and anticipate, second and third-order effects of the pandemic. The lack of such thinking is in many ways what got us here, facing not just a public health emergency, but also an economic and humanitarian crisis. We have made an organizational decision to turn most of our attention over the next 6-12 months towards understanding these second and third-order effects, and identifying the pathways through which we can build back better. Just before the lock-down was announced, we had planned a methods workshop to kick-start our new initiative 'Future Sensing'. This crisis has only reinforced the need for such methodological tools. Over the next few months, we will be organizing a series of futuring exercises. Do drop us a line if you would like to know more or participate.

In our last newsletter, we had summed up our priorities, as a young think tank entering year 3, in two words - relevance and method. The current crisis has made these even more urgent priorities. What is the role of think tanks, and more broadly policy researchers, in such a context? How does one combine actionable research with systemic foresight? Equally, how we adapt our research methods? We prided ourselves on combining ethnographic methods and policy insights, bridging top and bottom, but how does one do this in a time of social distancing? Do we need new tools? Or is this an opportunity to fundamentally re-think conventional research practices - to let the subjects of our research be the ones documenting what is happening to them, through digital testimonies?

Lots to think about - if you’re thinking about some of these issues too, we’d love to hear from you!


Big news first, from our Future Cities initiative. We are setting up India’s first Urban Living Lab ( ULL) in Panaji, in partnership with Imagine Panaji Smart City Development Limited, Oxford Policy Management, and The Resources and Energy Institute (TERI). Urban living labs are ‘early experimentation gardens’ embedded in neighborhoods and cities, in which residents, governments, private actors and knowledge institutions interact to design, test and fine-tune social and technical interventions in real-time. This collaborative arrangement marks a shift from incumbent efforts based on government-industry partnerships. At its heart is the idea that urban sites can provide a learning arena within which the co-creation of new ideas and solutions can be pursued.

More broadly, we have also been thinking about what the current crisis means for the future of Indian cities. Will future cities move towards dis-aggregation - the separating out of populations - backed by rationales of public health, self-sufficiency achievable at smaller scales? And poly-centricity, so that impacts are fragmented and do not cascade across larger connected systems of cities? Zaheb wrote a short blog piece exploring these ideas further.


Our Future of Work team started work on an IDRC funded project on Women and Work in India’s platform economy, but have had to put the fieldwork on hold. But, looking at issues around worker well-being and social protection has perhaps never been as important.

Low wage workers, migrant workers, and gig workers are the ones most deeply impacted by this crisis. We have created a tracker that looks at what protections platforms are offering gig workers, in India and globally. In partnership with the Center of Internet & Society, we also organised a webinar with the representatives of workers on ride-sharing (Ola, Uber) and delivery platforms (Zomato, Swiggy), to understand the situation on the ground. It's even bleaker than you might imagine - read here for more. We also compiled a list of recommendations for governments and platforms. If you are senior management at a platform or know someone who is, please do take a few minutes to read these documents. Not quite our style normally, but since we increasingly feel that customers must start demanding higher standards from platforms, we will share that only Urban Company (previously Urban Clap) has responded to our letter, so far.

Building on our ongoing research on worker well-being in India's platform economy, Urvashi and Mawii recently published a paper proposing a framework to identify platform responsibilities toward workers. Urvashi gave the keynote address at a panel on the Future of Work organized by the now virtual Global Solutions Summit. She also spoke at a panel on the Future of Education and Learning. While there is much enthusiasm about e-learning, we are less convinced. Why not increase the number of teachers instead - a tutorial-based system? What about those who cant access these online tools? What are the new burdens it places on teachers? Over the next few months, we will be reviewing new online learning interventions, as well as the possible alternatives.

We have also started a second tracker documenting the use of technology for worker surveillance. Even before the crisis, we had noticed a growing use of a range of pretty intrusive tech tools to monitor workers. We are now concerned that these tools will become further legitimized, as necessary for fighting coronavirus. This a work in progress and in the next few months we will be releasing a series of papers on tech and worker rights in India.

Last year, in a project for USAID, we studied the impact of a range of different types of digital platforms in the Global South - Golden Dreams (Myanmar), Sweep South (South Africa), QuikrJobs (India), and Amazon Mechanical Turk - on worker rights, agency, and well being. These papers are finally online!


Over the past 18 months, our AI & Society team has held a series of policy labs on the use of AI in India. We also did a landscape study to identify key use cases in various sectors. I'm excited to finally share some of these outputs with you. Our papers on AI & Education, Sustainability, Cities and Democracy are ready, and the one of health should be in your inbox soon as well ( we had to update it for COVID-19). These were intended as diagnostic papers, to identify key opportunities and concerns, and form the basis for deeper empirical investigations. While our initial plan for the AI & Society program this year was to build a body of empirical case studies, combined with an exploration of governance frameworks, we will now mostly focus our energies on the latter for the coming year.

We are also starting a new stream of work, called Re-imagining Data, which will look at existing narratives around data and attempt to craft new metaphors that are better aligned with values of social justice and equity. We will also explore policies for data stewardship, with a particular focus on issues of community, trust, and accountability. We responded to the draft Personal Data Protection bill as well the white paper released by MEITY on theNational Open Digital Ecosystems (NODE).

Earlier this year, we noted our concerns around the use of automated facial recognition systems and called for its all-out ban. We also flagged concerns around the contact tracing app - Aarogya Setu - concerned not just about privacy, but also accountability, equity, and misuse. Urvashi shared some of these concerns on a podcast for Chatham House, as well as a webinar on India's response to Covid-19. Along with 36 other civil society organizations, we endorsed the Internet Freedom Foundation's recommendation to the government to roll back the mandatory use of Aarogya Setu. A huge congratulations to IFF for all their hard work - the mandatory provision has now been diluted with the latest lockdown announcement.

But, civil society must continue to be vigilant. There is a strong chance government ministries and employers will continue to insist on the app to access particular services. We are also maintaining a technology and rights tracker for India, documenting the various ways in which new technologies introduced to combat pandemic can impinge on, or advance, civil liberties. In the next month, we will undertake a rapid assessment of these interventions, and share the results soon.

We also continued our work on the role of Big Tech in India. With / Post Covid-19, Big Tech is likely to get bigger. For one, many other players in the tech eco-system, whether in India or globally, will find it considerably harder to weather the looming economic downturn. But even more importantly, Big Tech is positioning itself as critical to the global response, as seen in the recent Google-Apple partnership for contact tracing. Urvashi and Angelina wrote an op-ed for the Print on the need to regulate Big Tech as essential infrastructure providers. More on this soon!


We have also been exploring the impact of Covid-19 on the world of work in Goa through a series of expert interviews and sector-specific blogs. Here is the one on Fisheries and another on Tourism, which was also published by the Herald, Goa.

We are conducting a survey of migrant workers in Goa with the aim of developing a set of recommendations for relevant government authorities. We are also trying to explore citizen-led solutions to help these migrants back on their feet. Some of our local civil society partners have already created a digital bulletin board to help match worker demand and supply. How can we leverage technology for decentralized and community-owned interventions? Goa seems like the perfect place to experiment with such solutions.


Earlier this year, we also launched the Greenhouse Technology-Art-Society Fellowshipprogram, a residency for researchers, technologists, and artists, to explore the ways in which emerging digital technologies are transforming Indian society. Our first tech-art-society fellow, Aishwarya, is exploring the changing modes of citizen journalism, looking at recent protests around the Citizenship Amendment Act. And last month, we started a Law and Society Fellowship, which aims to support research on the interplay between constitutional law, human rights, and development. Nishant, our first fellow, will explore environmental and development policies through a human rights lens!

That's it for now. We’re quite on top of work from home by now, but still, need to crack holiday from home! Tips more than welcome:)

All the best from the Tandem team,
Urvashi, Vikrom, Angelina, Zaheb, Joanne, Harsh, Mawii, Iona, Chandika, Aishwarya and Nishant

And our furry friends Szabo, Luna, Pluto and Lily - they are loving this lockdown btw - humans never go anywhere and are perpetually in the kitchen!


Urvashi Aneja

Urvashi Aneja is Founding Director of Tandem Research. She works on the governance and sociology of emerging technology; southern partnerships for humanitarian and development assistance; and the power and politics of global civil society. Urvashi is also Associate Fellow at Chatham House and a columnist for the Indian Express. She has a PhD from the Department of Politics & International Relations, University of Oxford. Previously, she was Associate Professor of International Relations at the OP Jindal Global University and Research Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.

Vikrom Mathur

Vikrom is an anthropologist of science and technology. His diverse research interests include the governance of emerging technologies, social and cultural dimensions of technological transitions, political and social contingencies on the production of scientific knowledge about Nature, cultural perceptions of environmental risk, dynamics between science and policy, and Cultural Theory. He has a PhD from the Institute of Science, Society, and Innovation at the University of Oxford. Vikrom is a Senior Fellow of the Observer Research Foundation & Associate Fellow of the Stockholm Environment Institute.