ADM Systems in the COVID-19 Pandemic: Germany

New report: 'Automated Decision-Making Systems in the COVID-19 Pandemic: A European Perspective' by AlgorithmWatch and Bertelsmann Stiftung – a special issue of the upcoming Automating Society Report 2020, to be published in October.

Country analysis: Germany

By Louisa Well

When the COVID-19 crisis hit Germany, several digital tools were developed to combat the spread of the virus and to live through the prolonged lockdown.

A Hackaton against the virus

Inspired by the Estonian hackathon, the Federal Chancellery hosted the hackathon WirVsVirus (Us versus the virus) in March 2020. A staggering 27,000 people participated in the hackathon and 1500 innovative ideas on how to combat COVID-19 were developed, many of which include digital applications that range from organizing neighborly support, to managing hospital resources, or checking COVID-19 symptoms.

Criticism to sharing mobile location data with local health authorities

Early on, discussions in both the public arena and the government focused on how to use data-driven solutions to combat COVID-19. In March, Jens Spahn, Minister of Health, intended to grant access to mobile phone location data held by telecommunications operators to local health departments. However, due to public criticism over privacy rights and the general ineffectiveness of the measure to trace the spread of the virus, Spahn withdrew the initiative from a draft proposal on protecting the population from the pandemic.

Making the most of health data through apps

As in many other countries, several apps were developed specifically for issues around COVID-19. One of the first was CovApp, which provides a questionnaire to identify people who should get tested for the virus. It was provided by the Charité hospital in Berlin, who feared that they would not be able to deal with a high number of people turning to them for testing. The app helps to ascertain who is most at risk of infecting others. It was developed using open source code and can be adopted by other hospitals all over the world.

In April, a voluntary data donation app was introduced by the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), the federal agency for infectious diseases. The app transfers health data from fitness devices such as smart watches and wearables to the RKI, who use the data to monitor the spread of the virus and the development of hot spots.

A U-turn on digital contact tracing

Debates in Germany are most contentious when it comes to contact tracing apps. While such apps were implemented early on in Asian countries such as Taiwan and Singapore and later also adopted in European countries like Austria and the UK, Germany went through a long period of quarrelling over the direction to take.

Things seemed to get moving when the European consortium Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) started working on a common standard for a tracing app that would be in line with the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and provide open source software. Hence, each country could build their own app, all of which would be interoperable and contact tracing would be possible across Europe.

A dispute emerged over whether to store the data in a centralized database or to keep it decentral on the devices collecting the data. Apple and Google proclaimed that they would only support a decentralized structure and while the German government first tended towards a centralized app, they eventually favored a decentralized app structure.

The Federal Ministry of Health and the RKI tasked T-Systems and SAP with building a contact tracing app for Germany. Since its roll out in June, the app was downloaded 17,2 million times, as of August 17.

Download the full report as PDF (1 MB).

Automated Decision-Making Systems in the COVID-19 Pandemic: A European Perspective is a special issue of the report Automating Society 2020 by AlgorithmWatch and Bertelsmann Stiftung, to be published in October. Subscribe to the our newsletter to be alerted when the report is out.