Detecting the Visible: The Discursive Construction of Health Threats in a Syndromic Surveillance System Design

Baki Cakici and Pedro Sanches

Societies, 2014.

Information and communication technologies are not value-neutral tools that reflect reality; they privilege some forms of action, and they limit others. We analyze reports describing the design, development, testing and evaluation of a European Commission co-funded syndromic surveillance project called SIDARTHa (System for Information on Detection and Analysis of Risks and Threats to Health). We show that the reports construct the concept of a health threat as a sudden, unexpected event with the potential to cause severe harm and one that requires a public health response aided by surveillance. Based on our analysis, we state that when creating surveillance technologies, design choices have consequences for what can be seen and for what remains invisible. Finally, we argue that syndromic surveillance discourse privileges expertise in developing, maintaining and using software within public health practice, and it prioritizes standardized and transportable knowledge over local and context-dependent knowledge. We conclude that syndromic surveillance contributes to a shift in broader public health practice, with consequences for fairness if design choices and prioritizations remain invisible and unchallenged.

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