Fighting the COVID-19 Pandemic with Big Data: Why Germany Should Learn from China’s Digital Experiments

Yixiang Xu

China Fellow; Program Officer, Geoeconomics

Yixiang Xu is the China Fellow and Program Officer, Geoeconomics at AGI, leading the Institute’s work on U.S. and German relations with China. He has written extensively on Sino-EU and Sino-German relations, transatlantic cooperation on China policy, Sino-U.S. great power competition, China's Belt-and-Road Initiative and its implications for Germany and the U.S., Chinese engagement in Central and Eastern Europe, foreign investment screening, EU and U.S. strategies for global infrastructure investment, 5G supply chain and infrastructure security, and the future of Artificial Intelligence. His written contributions have been published by institutes including The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, The United States Institute of Peace, and The Asia Society's Center for U.S.-China Relations. He has spoken on China's role in transatlantic relations at various seminars and international conferences in China, Germany, and the U.S.

Mr. Xu received his MA in International Political Economy from The Josef Korbel School of International Studies at The University of Denver and his BA in Linguistics and Classics from The University of Pittsburgh. He is an alumnus of the Bucerius Summer School on Global Governance, the Global Bridges European-American Young Leaders Conference, and the Brussels Forum's Young Professionals Summit. Mr. Xu also studied in China, Germany, Israel, Italy, and the UK and speaks Mandarin Chinese, German, and Russian.

__ | 202-770-3262

Germany is battling a growing corona virus epidemic that originated in China last year and has since spread rapidly around the world. Although Italy remains the epicenter of the outbreak in Europe, it is clear that transmission within Germany is increasing fast.

The German government introduced rigorous border checks but has so far rejected blanket quarantine measures that were adopted by countries from China to Italy. The Chinese government credits its aggressive efforts to seal off entire cities and regions for successfully containing the spread of the virus. But the real force behind the country’s ability to effectively monitor transmissions and organize orderly resumption of social and economic activities in its urban centers has been an unprecedented data collection campaign.

More on the Coronavirus

A wide range of public and private data are being collected by Chinese government authorities and private companies. Chinese search engine giant Baidu released an epidemic map that shows the location of confirmed and suspected cases in real time. An app dubbed “Close Contact Detector,” jointly designed by the General Office of the State Council, the National Health Commission, and the China Electronics Technology Group Corporation, alerts users who have come into contact with confirmed cases using user location data and public transportation data. Most notably, many provinces in China mandate the use of health code apps that grant or restrict freedom of movement by accessing people’s travel histories and contacts.

Of course, these innovative uses of big data are made possible by the Chinese state’s extensive mass surveillance systems. In Germany, legal restrictions and a strong privacy culture make the adoption of such digital applications very unappetizing. So, why should Germany pay attention to these new digital practices that seem inapplicable to it?

It Is Effective and Achievable

Germany is struggling to contain the transmission of COVID-19 with its decentralized healthcare system. A collection of state and local health authorities that comprises varying epidemic response and information sharing mechanisms is an insufficient substitute for a centralized, stream-lined federal campaign. German chancellor Angela Merkel gave a grave prognosis to the German Bundestag that 60 to 70 percent of the German population could be infected at some point. Digital tools may not prevent the inevitable, but they can help to slow the spread of the virus and moderate the social economic impact from the epidemic.

Mapping out confirmed cases with public transportation data and mobile geolocation data could accelerate efforts to track down close contacts and identify suspect cases across the country. Its real-time monitoring capacity enables health authorities to enforce targeted quarantine. Making this information easily accessible to the public helps to direct people away from known centers of transmission and could calm wide-spread panic buying, or Hamsterkauf. Assessing individuals’ risk of infection based on a profile of movement and association would facilitate the German economy’s ability to maximize productivity and minimize unemployment during this global health crisis that already foreshadows an economic downturn.

Assessing individuals’ risk of infection based on a profile of movement and association would facilitate the German economy’s ability to maximize productivity and minimize unemployment during this global health crisis that already foreshadows an economic downturn.

The data needed for these applications are already collected in Germany by government entities and private institutions, such as railway companies and telecom service providers. The EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the German Federal Data Protection Act, and Germany’s Infection Protection Act (IFSG) all include provisions for processing personal data for protecting public health interests, providing legal ground for using big data to combat the corona virus pandemic.

It Is About Germany’s Digital Future

To realize the far-reaching digital experiments, governments in China have relied heavily on partnerships with large Chinese technology companies. Companies like Alibaba, Tencent, and Baidu are given official support to develop innovative AI solutions for all kinds of surveillance, security, and healthcare applications as well as state-sanctioned opportunities to train these systems on a gigantic amount of real-time data across the country. Many of these newly invented or greatly improved products, especially in the B2C and B2B sectors, will attract more demand after the pandemic and give Chinese companies a further boost in development capacity as well as global market share.

China is also not alone in putting its technology capacity and data resources to work. Technology frontrunners such as Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan have all seen variants of such digital experiments during the public health crisis. Their shared experience of perceived success during this period will shape how some of the world’s biggest and most innovative economies regulate data. The truth is, much of the world outside Europe is much more interested in putting their data to work than obsessing over pitfalls of privacy encroachment.

Germany’s ability to close the gap with these digital frontrunners will depend on whether its government could seize available opportunities like this to permit experimentation with its underutilized data resources to build up the country’s digital innovation capacity. There are of course legal issues and ethical concerns to navigate. But if Germany still wants a seat at the table to decide how future digital technologies and the data that nurture them are effectively regulated around the world, it needs to join the crowd of practitioners.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.