Engaging citizens to prepare for the next pandemic

“How can we engage citizens so that they can share their views and we are able to co-design policy with them?”

Serge Stinckwich

As a computer scientist, Serge Stinckwich is especially interested in “providing tools for people who are non-computer scientists”, and in making digital technologies “more humane”.

When he was younger, he was more driven by the “theoretical aspects” of computer science. Now, he is more passionate about “the impact” it can create, especially long term. Citizen science, he believes, can help make that impact more meaningful.

Before joining UNU Macau as Head of Research, he was an Associate Professor at the University of Caen Normandie (France) and a researcher in the UMMISCO international joint research unit of IRD (French Research Institute on Sustainable Development) and Sorbonne University.

Over the years, he developed an innovative research programme about modelling and simulation of complex systems at the intersection of several scientific disciplines applied to developing countries’ issues. With a research interest in domain-specific languages, he has lived in Vietnam, where he worked in a programme that dealt with deploying simple mobile autonomous sensors during disasters. He has also lived two years and a half in Cameroon, where he worked in applications related to epidemiological surveillance and environmental monitoring.


Preparing for the next pandemic


Having a special interest in public health, Serge Stinckwich is currently working on a project in UNU Macau that is funded by I-DAIR, the International Digital Health and AI Research Collaborative: “Building Citizen Science Intelligence for Pandemic Preparedness and Response: Needs Assessment and Pilot Implementation”.

The project, which has been conceived as having different stages over the next five years, is based on the premise that, to contain the pandemic through accurate, real-time and data-driven measures, it is urgent to establish collective intelligence capabilities that involve all stakeholders.

“After the COVID-19, we can see that there are some issues – communication issues, trust issues – and disconnections between the experts, or the expertise, and the citizens”, the researcher explains. And the question is: “How can we reduce this gap?”

In this pilot phase, researchers are focusing on “the participation piece”. “How can we involve citizens who are not necessarily experts in the medical field, how can we engage them so that they can share their views and we are able to co-design policy with them?”

This question is being explored in three different countries: Brazil, Kenya and Vietnam. “Because we are thinking there are different contexts and, depending on the countries, there may be different issues to solve.”

The idea is to bring together, in each country, different stakeholders, including hospital staff, ministry officials, and people from different communities. This can be done in different groups, depending on the issues they want to address, Serge Stinckwich explains. “What are the main actors involved? What are the resources they have? What are the dynamics between the actors and the researchers? What are the interactions between the actors?”

Part of the process includes training facilitators, and building models that represent the reality of people, based on those discussions. It also includes “building games”, “to understand better some kind of interactions between the different stakeholders”, as well as building “a computer model” that can represent the actors and their behaviour, allowing for simulation and extrapolation, and for exploring different scenarios.

He explains all this happens in a kind of a “feedback loop” that involves presenting results to the people involved and enabling them to build trust and have a better understanding of each other’s’ points of view and behavioural reactions. In the end, the idea is to try to propose some contextualised policies, he says.

In addition to Agent Based Modelling, Serge Stinckwich’s current research interests also include Artificial Intelligence (AI) applied to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
He highlights the importance of UNESCO’s recent Recommendation on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence , which was adopted by 193 UN member states in November 2021, and presents some guiding principles regarding the development and use of AI technologies. According to the organisation, there is a need for “a human-centred AI”, and for “international and national policies and regulatory frameworks to ensure these emerging technologies benefit humanity as a whole”.

Serge Stinckwich believes many countries now want to assess their AI landscape, but he asks: “How can you apply these principles in a specific country?”

Firstly, “developed countries and developing countries don’t face the same kind of problems or issues, so it is very important to contextualise”, he says. Also, it is important to analyse the ecosystem in each nation to understand the potential risks and benefits these technologies pose in that specific context, he adds. In the end, policy recommendations may be different, depending on the country, he notes.

One project by UNU Macau that illustrates this need to assess AI in a contextualised form is the research that resulted in the report “Gender Sensitive Artificial Intelligence (AI) Policy in Southeast Asia ”, a work led by former UNU Macau Senior Researcher Eleonore Fournier-Tombs.

But Serge Stinckwich points out there is also “a need to think about ways to provide solutions in a broader sense”. For example, he says, there is still a lack of recommendations for the people or companies that are building the AI systems. “So, we have to provide regulation”, he says.

Would a global regulatory and enforcement instrument for AI be desirable, at this stage? “It’s difficult to answer”, he admits, because “it is not enough to say ‘your system should not do this or that’; we need to know how to guarantee that the system will not do this or that”.

“In principle, you need to have AI systems that do not promote discrimination, for instance. But how do you go from that? How do you operationalise such principles?” There are researchers addressing these questions, but Serge Stinckwich says we are still “a bit far” from finding a solution.

And while we look for answers, AI systems continue to be built, he notes. At the same time, there is an ongoing debate, the researcher explains: on one side, there are those who tend to a more transhumanistic vision – that advocates the use of current and emerging technologies to enhance human capabilities and improve the human condition – and think that too much ethical framework may slow down the achievement of these goals; and others who adopt a much more cautious approach to these current and emerging technologies, highlighting the need for stricter ethical regulations.

“Critical thinking” is key to address these questions, Serge Stinckwich says. Because there are risks and ethical problems that need to be addressed, including in the case of ChatGPT, which he recently addressed in a workshop. Some people, he says, believe such systems “will transform their lives” and will only bring about benefits, but they do so because they are not aware of the potential consequences they may have in a variety of fields, from environment to job market, for example. “It is our role to explain how such systems work, the benefits they bring, for sure, but also the potential negative impacts they pose.”

“Like a chemist needs to conduct experiments” to be in touch with reality, Serge Stinckwich says he needs “to code” from time to time. But what can really bring his mood down is to spend too long without teaching. “I need that kind of energy by young people”, he says. “It is of the most importance to be in contact with people that energise you and will give you some new ideas.”

When he was a child, in France, he first wanted to become an astronomer. “I was very passionate about that.” In his first year of college, studying physics, he was even very much interested in quantum physics. But he eventually got “contaminated by computer science”, he says.

A minimal and experimental electronic music fan, he likes to be engaged with people that work on this field “in the local scene”. He did so in Vietnam, and he continues to do so in Macao. Asia does feel home to him.