ADM Systems in the COVID-19 Pandemic: Portugal

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: Portugal

By Eduardo Santos

During the COVID-19 epidemic crisis in Portugal, as in Europe, there was much discussion on the use of technology as a way to fight the epidemic, namely the use of contact-tracing apps. The debate was particularly intense in civil society and also reached politics.

Decentralised proximity tracing app

In light of several solution models that other countries adopted, or were considering adopting, public actors, in general, defended solutions that do not need automatic decision while highlighting privacy concerns. In April, the Portuguese government declared its support to a INESC TEC initiative of a contact-tracing called STAYAWAY COVID, which implements the DP-3T decentralized proximity tracing system.

The app makes use of Google’s and Apple’s APIs related to the usage of Bluetooth technology, yet the government has publicly criticized those companies. First, due to their imposition of technical standards, which was considered an attempt to question the right of democratically elected governments to assess and judge them as acceptable to their citizens and compatible with the European values; and at a later stage because the app needs the localization option to be active in order to use Bluetooth, even if it does not use localization services.

The app faced public criticism from civil society,  and even though it has not yet received full approval from the data protection authority, legislation was approved by the Government. At the end of July the source-code of the app was made available. As of early August, the test phase is still ongoing, but the app is expected to be available to the public by the end of the month.

An app for the bathing season

In preparation for the summer bathing season, a website and an app were also announced by the government. The prime minister said that all persons planning to go to the beach should install this app, which will indicate if any given beach still has space or if it has already reached the maximum (reduced) capacity.

While the app itself does not seem problematic, it remains unclear how the information is being gathered in practice. The system accepts different kind of inputs, including manual inputs from the local beach operators, but it also supports an automatic machine learning system that relies on live video footage from the beach in order to calculate the density of people on a beach. Both details of the system and information around where it is being deployed are not available to the public.

Smart screening of COVID-19 patients

On May 15, 2020, S. João Hospital in Porto announced that it would begin analyzing CT scan images from COVID-19 patients through an artificial intelligence system. This system will do a first reading and screening of the images, and select some features that it thinks may correspond to an infection, highlighting these facts to the doctor, who may or may not validate the findings. It was decided to use this system to try and speed up the process of reading the images, increase confidence in the diagnosis, and help the patients' prognosis by automatically quantifying the damage the disease does to the lungs.

The Program in Data Science and Artificial Intelligence in Public Administration for 2020 was also redirected specifically to the fight against COVID-19. This year the objective  is “to support R&D projects and initiatives that can contribute to new responses to this and future pandemics, with an emphasis on supporting citizens and health care services”.

[su_note note_color="#ffffff" text_color="#3e3e3e" radius="0"]Correction: An earlier version of this section claimed that information on Portugal's "beach app" was publicly available. This is incorrect and we corrected the section.[/su_note]

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.