Contact tracing: apps need people to work

Recently, InternetNZ hosted an online conversation on contact tracing and the Internet. Contact tracing is the way public health workers track backwards from people confirmed to have COVID-19, to find out who else might be infected. It is one of the public health terms, like physical distancing and R0, which have become newly familiar through news stories and daily updates where we learn why our lives are changing now, and what the future might hold.

Since contact tracing involves collecting and sharing data, it looks like the kind of problem Internet technologies can help with. But because that data is about people, it also raises big concerns about security, privacy, and upholding people’s trust.

With restrictions keeping people at home, the Internet has become even more important to how people connect, work, and learn. When we can’t really go out, going online is how many of us understand what’s happening, share our views, and ask how we can help. Those very human motives have helped drive an online discussion of technologies for contact tracing among people in New Zealand and around the world.

People were bringing a range of perspectives to that conversation. Some technologists have been really enthusiastic about using smartphone location data, or their cool idea for an app or hackathon, as ways to help track and control COVID-19. While well-intentioned, even very cool technologies probably cannot help much with this on their own.


Image: © 2020 from a Tweet by Twitter user @aidanpeppin

Alt-text: Hand-drawn diagram titled “should you build an AI app to help with COVID-19” that says unless you can code, and have been asked to by the NHS, and understand public health and good data ethics, you probably shouldn’t bother actually

Understanding contract tracing

Privacy and human rights advocates raised concerns that digital contact tracing which is badly designed or implemented, could create huge and ongoing risks to people’s security and privacy. While the current public health emergency might justify and require some unusual steps, do we want all those measures to be in place forever? We might need ways to stop the data collected for contact tracing being kept or used for other purposes.

Controlling COVID-19 is primarily a public health challenge, so another vital perspective is that of public health experts, who understand how contact tracing works and what would be needed for technologies to effectively help. Finally, leadership on contact tracing decisions, and related issues like testing and lockdown levels, can only come from government.

But government decision makers have had to move really quickly, and might not have had the time to pull together and understand all the different perspectives needed to make good decisions on technologies for contact tracing in New Zealand.

That is the gap we saw. Looking at the online conversation in New Zealand, there’s lots of great analysis from a range of important perspectives. However, we did not see a lot of people talking to others with different expertise or concerns in a way that could support a shared understanding of the issues and options.

So, we offered to host an online conversation that would help to fill that gap. Our goal was to bring together people from a range of views on technologies for contact tracing, to share and hear from each other. We offered space for people to hear and share perspectives in a couple of ways.

We shared a collaborative Google Doc that over 90 people contributed to, and hosted a Zoom meeting on Friday April 17th 2020, led by an opening panel of people with informed perspectives on public health, technology options, social licence, Māori data sovereignty, security issues, privacy, and global human rights. We have produced a summary of the conversation so far which you can read here.


So, how did it go, and what did we learn?

One lesson is that people really really care about this topic. We were surprised, then astonished, at the level of interest, with 160 registrations for our Zoom event. At one point, over 80 people edited our shared Google Document at the same time!

Another is that participants wanted to see decisions made in a way that earns and deserves people’s trust. Across the broad range of perspectives we heard from, it seemed everyone was open to practical solutions being developed, as long as this was done in a way that considered people’s concerns. You can read more about that in our summary document [link].

The same point came up earlier this week in Dr Ayesha Verrall’s audit of contact tracing, which said that the “potential impact will not be realised unless it is acceptable to a large proportion of the population and enjoys high uptake.”

Finally, from our perspective, it took fast work to make all this happen. We are incredibly grateful to the team at InternetNZ for the quick, helpful work to make this possible, and to everyone who participated in our part of this developing online conversation.