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Why folks don't belief contact monitoring apps and what to do about it

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The news: Digital contact tracking apps have faced a variety of issues, but that doesn't mean we should give up the idea, according to the authors of a new article in Science magazine. Instead, successful digital contact tracing must be ethical, trustworthy, locally rooted, and adapted to new data.

The problem: Modern public health relies on outbreak contact tracing, and digital apps have promised to add jet fuel to the fight against Covid-19. At the start of the pandemic, companies and governments launched contact tracking apps to help stop the spread of the disease. It is unlikely that Google and Apple have even joined forces. Now we see the shortcomings in this premise. Download rates are low, usage rates appear even lower, and apps face many other logistical hurdles. Manual and automated contact tracing still does not provide much needed results on a large scale. A recent survey by Pew shows that, among other things, people struggle with trusting public health officials with their information and are reluctant to answer the phone when the caller is unknown (like a health department).

Additionally, digital contact tracing has clearly not reached out to many people effectively. It's not just those without a smartphone, but marginalized groups like the elderly, unhoused, and those concerned about law enforcement and immigration.

What should be done instead?: In their scientific essay, the authors Alessandro Blasimme and Effy Vayena, bioethicists at ETH Zurich in Switzerland, say that “adaptive governance” is an important missing ingredient. It's about being collaborative, nimble, and local: stop looking for top-down, centralized campaigns and strategies that may not work if they don't meet local needs. It's time to rely on local partnerships, cross-border collaborations, and all the human teamwork that is easy to forget when there is a shiny new button to click.

There is currently no national contact tracking app in the US. However, if the authors are correct, it might not be a huge problem. Instead, they say that if we want more people to adopt new technology, we must rely on "the gradual creation of public trust". It is an on-going process where authorities learn from their mistakes and listen to users. It's also important to have a real overview so users feel that their data is not being misused, and to work together across borders so that your app doesn't stop working when you move from one place to another.

The conclusion: There are still many questions to be answered about the effectiveness and development of contact tracing apps. But instead of stopping digital tracking efforts or scaling up existing efforts without a close look, it is time to reconsider. Digital contact tracing is only part of a toolkit that requires research-based teamwork on the ground to build trust and relationships among users, governments, and the technologies themselves.

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Steven Gregory