Across the world, countries have developed contact tracing apps that identify and control the spread of the coronavirus. Here in the UK, an app developed by NHSX, the health service’s digital transformation unit, is currently being piloted on the Isle of Wight and may be rolled out by mid-June.
The logic behind the UK app, which functions through deriving Bluetooth-sourced location data from users’ phones, is quite simple. Once someone has downloaded the app and self-declares with symptoms of the virus, a message will be sent to everyone they have come into contact with – as long as they also have the app – to advise they now also self-isolate or take a test.
With the app’s rollout likely to coincide with the further easing of lockdown restrictions, experts and government alike see it as crucial to minimising the resurgence of the disease.
As the app draws closer to full operability, four key points should be considered by local authorities before its roll-out begins.
One: Part of a (much) broader tracing strategy
Technological innovation does not provide the sole answer to such a complex problem as tracing the coronavirus. It is crucial then that the app is understood as part of a broader tracing strategy that involves actual testing and the deployment of tracing teams. Indeed, as app users can self-diagnose without verification, data generated from these other tracing methods will be more accurate. To ensure the app is effective, its operation must be shaped by coordination between a range of local agencies responsible for these other methods, including GPs and Public Health England.
Two: Public buy-in
Research shows that it is highly unlikely that downloads of the app will be huge if, as planned, people will have to volunteer and opt-in. Even if someone downloads the app and self-declares, it will not necessarily be the case that those they have come into contact with have also downloaded the app. If others don’t have the app, it means the will not receive the message. Taking this into account, local authorities should consider communication strategies that aim to increase the adoption of the app within their communities.
Three: The digital divide
Connected to this issue is the digital divide. Many people, particularly the most vulnerable, will simply not have access to the Bluetooth technology that is needed to enable the app to work. And even with the technology, phones are a surface on which the virus may thrive for days and the public might not take their phones outside, meaning they cannot be contact traced.
It is therefore crucial that local authorities consider a range of other strategies to communicate the spread of the disease. This might include mass text messaging on the basis of actual testing in the area and using public display screens.
Four: Privacy and security
Privacy and security will be at the forefront of many minds. There are concerns that highly sensitive medical data could potentially be hacked. To ease these concerns the app’s operation must comply with the safety rules about the use of data as codified in the NHS Caldicott principles, which cite that organisations should ensure that information that can identify a patient is protected.
Are apps the answer?
If deployed in a measured way, cognisant of the unwarranted hype and hubris that usually follows their announcement, apps could be part of the UK’s recovery from the coronavirus. But it can only do so if it is thought of as one component within a broader recovery strategy that looks specifically to build a fairer society addressing the vulnerabilities in the UK that the disease has exposed.
Dr Nathaniel O'Grady is a lecturer in Human Geography and Disaster at the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute at The University of Manchester. He is currently working with colleagues from Alliance Manchester Business School and across the university to develop successful plans for ensuring the UK’s recovery from Covid-19.
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