The Fieldlabs are government-mandated field trials with public events: a football match, for example, or a conference, theatre performance or festival. Van Exel isn’t directly involved in the events as such. Rather, he’s been working on behalf of the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport in the evaluation team for the government’s CoronaCheck app, which is headed by EUR professor Wolfgang Ebbers.

The team is using the Fieldlab events as an early opportunity to test users’ experiences in a real-life setting. Van Exel: “You’ve got two apps: the notification app CoronaMelder, which has been live a few months already, and a new one: CoronaCheck. If you’ve received a negative result from one of the testing locations, this app allows you to make a QR code that you can have scanned at the entrance to show you aren’t contagious. During and after the trial events, we ask people about their experiences with the app.”

Test society

Van Exel explains that the app is actually part of a larger infrastructure that is currently being developed ‘in anticipation of the test society’. “Of course, we still have to deal with the aftermath of this pandemic, but we should also start readying ourselves for the next one. And who knows: there might be another wave. In a situation like that, you want to have a testing infrastructure in place that allows you to limit the social and economic impact of a pandemic.”

Fieldlab events are intended to test this technology, says Van Exel. “Normally, a stadium like ArenA fits some 50,000, so it still looks quite empty when you only let in six groups, to a total of 5,000 people. But handling this safely during the Covid pandemic is already quite a hassle. And the question remains: will you also be able to scale this up further – maybe up to 50,000? These are the kinds of questions that are being researched at the Fieldlabs.”

job van exel amsterdam arena fieldlabs corona app eigen foto (2)
The ‘landing’ where Van Exel did his interviews Image credit: own archive

How do you think the experiment went, in the stadium?

“There were six ‘bubbles’. Each group had to abide by different rules. I was in Bubble Six. People had to wear a face mask and weren’t allowed to shout or sing, but they didn’t have to socially distance. As researchers we did, incidentally: we had to observe them from some distance. We were only allowed to interview them on the ‘landing’, keeping 1.5 metres between us and wearing face masks. People were positive about how easy it was to use the CoronaCheck app at the entrance. That’s something you see quite a bit in the Netherlands: people usually don’t mind as long as you make sure everything runs smoothly. But we don’t like things being made compulsory. That’s taking it too far, in a lot of people’s view.”

What’s your take on the King’s Day festivities being called off in Breda?

“Of course, it feels a bit harsh to organise large-scale public events while our hospital wards are full of patients – I get why people feel that way. At the same time, it’s easier to test the infrastructure when there’s a concrete risk of infection. It’s a difficult call to make – which is why it’s extra important that the experiments themselves are tightly controlled. During the football match, spectators needed to test for Covid both beforehand and five days after the event. But the second test wasn’t compulsory, so some people didn’t go. This means that we miss out on very important information: data that we need to properly evaluate the results of the experiment. In the case of the Fieldlab festival in Biddinghuizen, we know it was attended by 3,000 festivalgoers, spread across two days. But I don’t know how many of these people had themselves tested afterwards. And you’re never entirely sure it was in follow-up to the festival.”

Surely you can still draw some conclusions of value, even if some people didn’t get themselves tested afterwards?

“At first glance, 16 infections on a total of 3,000 attendees sounds like a good result. But you don’t have any data on the people who didn’t have themselves tested again, or why they chose not to. Potentially, this could mean overlooking hundreds of infections. But you simply don’t know. Which is a crying shame, actually.”

How are participants currently encouraged to get themselves tested?

“Obviously, people do agree to the first test – you aren’t let in otherwise. And after the event, visitors are urgently advises to have themselves tested again. While I was working at ArenA, I also received a few push messages on my phone, urging me to get myself tested. So they’re definitely nudged. But if I’m not mistaken, they can’t trace whether you actually get yourself tested, or get the result: for privacy reasons. And I don’t think they can make it compulsory either, but then again: I’m not a lawyer.”

Shouldn’t we simply wait a bit longer before organising these large-scale trial events?

“I think that in preparation for the test-based society, the wish to collect data in some way or other is certainly justified. But personally, I felt a number of these mass events came quite soon. And it still isn’t clear what the Fieldlab team did exactly beforehand to evaluate the ethical dimensions. Incidentally, the research into CoronaCheck conducted by the evaluation team has been carefully vetted in this respect.”

Job van Exel Charlotte Dieteren coronawetenschap – Levien Willemse

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