Integrating regulatory and migrant perspectives of sewage surveillance

The Team

External Collaborator

Public Utilities Board (PUB)

External Collaborator

National Environmental Agency (NEA)

External Collaborator

Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME)

External Collaborator

Centre for Liveable Cities (CLC)

The Proposal

Interdisciplinary Nature of Proposal

This project brings together science and technology studies (STS), migration studies, and engineering. STS analysis is focused on critiquing the technoscientific endeavours of engineers, and migration studies scholars investigate how and why people move, and with what consequences. Although the disciplines rarely meet, the realities of the pandemic management in Singapore require new insights from all three. Stefan Wuertz’s broad and deep experience with water engineering projects provides the team with important insights into the technical aspects of engineering a sewage monitoring system, a current project funded by NRF Intra-CREATE, of which Monamie Bhadra Haines is a team-member. His long-running experience in working with Singapore regulatory institutions, such as the NEA and PUB provides crucial access to understanding regulatory perspectives of surveillance. Laavanya Kathiravelu brings not only over a decade of experience working with migrant communities and issues of inequality as both a scholar and advocate at HOME, but also her relationship with CLC. As an STS scholar, Monamie Bhadra Haines’ attention to issues of public trust in technologies, the politics of expertise, and how citizenship is enacted through technological interventions helps bridge these different fields through the framework of anticipatory governance.

Potential Societal Impact

Recent history shows that Singapore will learn from the COVID-19 pandemic and deploy measures, including surveillance technologies, to minimize the infection rates of migrant workers (MWs). While technologies like the CCTV and mobile phone monitoring raise concerns for violating individual privacy, sewage surveillance (SS) has the potential to minimize these concerns because of its coarse scale of data acquisition (neighbourhood and HDB level), where biomarkers of composite sewage are not yet disaggregated at the individual level. In surveilling MWs through aggregate data, SS has the potential to minimize some issues of individual privacy, but can also lead to indiscriminately subjecting MW to one-size-fits-all politics (e.g. sending residents of an infected dormitory back if testing is seen as too expensive). This project aims to understand how regulatory logics shaping sewage surveillance will allocate advantages and disadvantages to different groups, and how MWs view their surveillance. Such information is crucial to developing legitimate surveillance systems for good governance and achieving positive health outcomes. In performing both ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ research into understanding both regulatory and migrant perspectives on sewage surveillance this project will contribute to facilitating necessary connections between MWs and the regulatory institutions that govern them.

Scientific Outputs and Project Deliverables

Publications: Engineering equitable sewage surveillance in Singapore? Science and Engineering Ethics Sewage surveillance and pandemic exceptionalism in Singapore. East Asian Science, Technology and Society Write a press release report of key findings to various news outlets and ministries, Urban Redevelopment Authority, and Ministry of Manpower Training Employment of one undergraduate research assistant Other grants MOE Tier 2 grant or SSRC: The grant proposal will aim to do comparative work across South and Southeast Asia as well as the Middle East. The aim is to understand how different governments in relationship with private sector entities are managing inequalities and other social concerns that arise from and are exacerbated by COVID-19, and how these lessons can be embedded into future technological interventions, namely apps. Through comparative research, this grant intends to outline a set of best practices of governing dataveillance technologies in Singapore. The pilot `project serves as a test case for using an anticipatory governance framework in Singapore, and then can be used as preliminary evidence of the efficacy of the framework for analysing different settings.

Risks and Mitigation

The risks of this project as well as strategies for mitigating those risks are as follows:

  1. Losing sensitive interview data:
    All voice recorded data will be viewed only by researchers; digital data will be stored in password protected hard drives/USB keys, which will be kept in locked in the researcher’s office.
  2. Losing anonymity of migrant workers:
    Identifiable information of workers will not be collected, nor which dormitory they live in.
  3. Losing access to migrant workers:
    While it is unlikely that because of Prof Wuertz’s longstanding, decade-long relationship with PUB and NEA we would lose access to interviews there, it is more likely that we may lose access to interviewing migrant workers. In that event, we will resort to telephone interviews, and if that fails, we will undertake survey research.

The Current Status

We began the project by collecting scholarly literature on contagion and disease management in Singapore from a social scientific and historical perspective to learn how epidemics and its management has been imagined by both colonial and postcolonial authorities in Singapore. Next we began conducting interviews with Bangladeshi and Tamil dormitory workers, and are a little over half way close to meeting our target. What we have found thus far, after preliminary results is how workers see wastewater surveillance as yet another apparatus of control alongside other technologies of surveillance. Rather, workers have mixed responses to surveillance, writ large, with some finding it beneficial, and others more oppressive. But what comes through in the interviews is a resignation with the lack of choice. What migrant workers wish for is to be trusted with freedoms of mobility. Interestingly, while wastewater surveillance was first trialled in the dorms, both migrant and students, wastewater sensing appears to be rapidly becoming part of the disease management toolkit. This case study speaks to the limits of anticipatory governance frameworks, when stakeholders and decision makers have little ability to participate in decision-making processes. But what we have found thus far is a partial picture. We still need to interview regulatory officials at the various institutions implementing and governing wastewater surveillance, as well as those working in NGOs. These interviews, as well as the remaining migrant worker interviews we intend to complete by the end of this calendar year.