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Friction is the biggest obstacle facing contact tracing

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Danny Bluestone, founder & CEO of Cyber-Duck, on the key factors being missed in the pandemic fightback.  

In times of heightened stress, particularly when that stress is married to pressing deadlines and ever-changing conditions, there is a tendency to cast about chaotically for solutions. As the problems loom large, answers are plucked out of thin air with a ‘decision first, application later’ approach. It is a reverse of Field of Dreams – not ‘if you build it, they will come’, more ‘they’re coming, quick, build something’.

Certainly, this seems to have been the UK’s approach to the coronavirus pandemic and you have to say, the reaction is understandable. Faced with mounting death rates, overwhelmed services and a nervous public desperate for answers and action, the pressure to deliver must be enormous.

But in these situations, it’s often all too easy to lose sight of the most pragmatic and usually most successful approach. What will historians say about the UK government’s approach to Track and Trace in 10 years?”

Reinventing the wheel

In the early days of the pandemic, it became clear from other countries’ experiences that one potentially important factor in squashing the spread of the disease was to identify and isolate as many cases as possible. The UK wasn’t alone in this realisation. Many other countries were also scrambling to find ways of tracking the spread in the hope of curtailing it.

Sadly, while individual countries have managed to inspire each other to act, there’s been little in the way of pooling resources, intellectual, technological or financial. The result is a patchwork of solutions which have had varying degrees of success.

In this case, it is the private sector – the international tech giants – who are best placed to create a universal Track & Trace solution and this is exactly what Apple and Google announced they would do in April 2020.

They invented Contact Trace which is an interoperable ‘exposure notification’ solution that runs on their latest mobile operating systems Android 10 and iOS 14. Exposure Notification uses Bluetooth to run seamlessly in the background on two competing mobile-operating systems in a low-power mode unlike apps created by third party which used a lot of battery power.

The solution lives natively within Apple Health or Google Fit. These are default wellness systems within each operating system, so no apps are needed.  ‘Exposure notification’ enabled phones constantly log other nearby phones, this then enables “contact tracing” of COVID-19: If one of the other phone owners has ‘declared’ they have the disease the other nearby phones would record this and notify its owner. People would have to both opt in and consent to report if they have COVID-19.

The ‘declaration’ of someone with COVID-19 for the time being needs to be done through a dedicated ‘country app’ (that connects to the Exposure Notification using APIs) provided by relevant Health Authorities.

Initially, the UK failed to embrace this strategy, preferring to go it alone on a privately sourced but publicly owned contact tracing app that cost the UK Government £11.8M, only for it to perform a screeching u-turn and adopt the Google/Apple framework after all.

A question of trust

Why was the UK Government so determined to go it alone with contact tracing? Many might attribute it to a sense of self-reliance at the heart of the institution with Brexit at its heart. However, the answer is probably simpler – governments are still very nervous about handing over what they perceive as control to private technology companies.

That mistrust is borne out of the same technological inadequacy that was at the heart of the Government’s attempt to create its own system. It eschewed a solution created by the world’s number one experts in rapid tech development, data collection and management. Instead, it built an app from scratch that couldn’t even get out of its Isle of Wight trial phase, beset with problems like incorrect notifications and battery life issues, causing frustrated users to uninstall.

If only the Government had started thinking like the end users rather than politicians. Then they would have realised that people are indeed willing to trust big companies with data, even data that relates to their health. Not only that, but by thinking like consumers, they would have realised that the best solution to use would be one that was hassle-free, automatic to use and ready to go.

Encourage compliance not defiance

The critical success factor of any system or framework in managing something as important as COVID-19 is use and usability. For it to be effective in suppressing the spread of the virus, contact tracing and declaration has to be near universal, which means everyone who has a compatible phone should be using it.

The Apple/Google solution is embedded and automated providing users ‘switch it on’. For some, this crosses into big brother territory but for something as important as COVID, perhaps optional is…not an option.  Privacy should not really be a concern as both tech giants committed to anonymising the data, deleting it after 14 days from a decentralised database and not collecting user location data.

That is not to say the latest solution is infallible. Users still ultimately have to download an app at the moment, which creates more friction. It’s being accompanied by marketing campaigns but still not everyone will download it.

It would be better if the Health Authorities gave Apple and Google the freedom to allow users to ‘declare’ that they suspect they have the disease first and then give the option of downloading an app or even going to a website to get more information on how to test yourself. After all, not downloading an app would arguably be a smoother user experience and reduce the UX friction.

Another issue is the percentage of people that have updated to iOS 14 or even iOS 13.7, the minimum level of OS needed for the Exposure Notification functionality to work.

It’s worth considering that six months after iOS 13 came out at the beginning of 2019, only 77% of users had the latest OS installed. It is easily possible that a sizable chunk of iPhone users will not be able to run the contract tracing app because their phones are not running the latest software. Android is even lower with only 44% of people on Android 10. This can probably be solved with marketing but it’s another hoop for the government to jump through.

Governments want everyone to use Contact Tracing. But without motivating and cheering citizens and users, how can governments encourage users to turn their notifications on and download apps? Once users report the illness, where do they go? How do they access information regarding their data?

As with much impacting society during the coronavirus pandemic, sometimes solutions provide as many questions as answers.

There are three pieces of advice I’d lay at the Government’s door: One, trust consumer behaviour; two, trust the experts and three, stop trying to reinvent the wheel. Let seamless and best-in-breed technology do what it does best.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Howard Broady

    September 30, 2020 at 3:56 pm

    Really good thinking. Do you think the app will work?

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