How effective can COVID-19 track and trace apps be in Europe?

Original article was published on Artificial Intelligence on Medium

How effective can COVID-19 track and trace apps be in Europe?

Last week, the UK government announced that tracking and tracing app, NHSx, will be ready for a UK-wide roll out in early June. The app is described as an effective way to track and contain those who have COVID-19 and stop the spreading of the infectious disease. The test, trace and contain approach, which countries like South Korea implemented as early as February when the country first begun seeing a rise in COVID-19 cases, has been widely acclaimed to be the best and most effective approach in tackling the spread of the disease.

Though it’s been effective in South Korea, there are growing doubts that it will have the same impact in the UK and other major European countries. Experts state these particular apps are only part of a wider COVID-19 strategy — an important cog in a larger machine — and are not as effective as they can be if the wider strategies around testing, containment and enforcing social distancing are not strong. Not only this, but there also remains real concerns over citizens’ privacy and data, which will be shared through the app.

Deeph Chana, a former advisor to the UK government on how technology can be used in crises, and now Professor at Imperial College Business School and Co-Director of the Institute for Security Science & Technology at Imperial College London believes that South Korea set a good example of how to contact trace and test those who are infected, but the UK government has been too slow in implementing their own app. “It is relatively easy to develop an app, and we’ve had the ability to do so since January, but it is only part of the solution. There is no point deploying this app if there is no physical capability to test as widely as we need to, which has been the case in the UK,” says Professor Chana. “We also need to understand how this app fits into the wider strategy of tackling COVID-19, and have very clear interventions in place following on from possible alerts the app sends people — currently there is no clear messaging or consensus on this.”

It is clear to see the app has to be part of a wider strategy, but even tracking and tracing cannot be done just through an app, according to Edgar Whitley, an Associate Professor of Information Systems at LSE’s Department of Management, who has recently authored a report on how technology can help transition the UK out of a lockdown. Professor Whitley says, “In practice, this app will need to be complemented by effective human contact tracing. This means individuals manually and physically contacting and tracing who has been in contact with whom.”

Not only are there concerns on the app’s position in a wider strategy, and whether or not this wider strategy is effective enough, but there are clear concerns around whether a significant amount of people will download the app at all. Professor Whitley says that “the effectiveness of the contact tracing app increases as more people download, install, and use the app, but current downloads on the Isle of Wight only seem to be about 40%. Scientific models suggest that take up levels of 80% of smartphone users (or 60% of the population) are needed for the UK. Even the most popular apps, such as WhatsApp, have not reached these 80% penetration levels.”

And this is a clear concern echoed by Professor Chana too, who says “it is not enough for people to just download the app, people have to consistently use it for it to be effective”. Professor Chana believes that a key reason as to why the app may not the necessary download numbers, and why many people would have concerns on the trustworthiness of the app and how their data will be used, is because of the lack of transparency so far from those creating it.

Professor Chana says that “the app claimed to be open source from the outset, but this was not the case until very recently. The general public still do not really know what data will need to be inputted into the app, how this data will be held, what it will be used for, who is involved in the creation of the app. This lack of transparency from the beginning has caused trust in the app to drop, and concerns to grow. There remains widespread debate about data being held centrally with such apps, with even big-tech companies like Apple and Google who have created similar apps, realising that they have to be decentralised in order to gain as much public trust as possible in their software.”

Though many countries across Europe have differed with their approach to tackling COVID-19, other large European countries are hoping to create and implement similar tracking and tracing apps to NHSx. However, concerns from UK citizens around effectiveness, privacy and the ethics of data-sharing are paramount in other European countries too.

In Germany for instance, where the federal government are currently preparing an app together with companies Deutsche Telekom and SAP, surveys show that only 40–50% of smartphone users are willing to use the app, a number significantly lower than the UK. However, Martin Schallbruch, deputy director of ESMT Berlin’s Digital Society Institute, who was previously a long-standing senior government official for IT, digital society and cybersecurity in the German federal government, says that “even a low usage of the app has positive effects, as any form of contact tracking can help to identify chains of infection and prevent future infections.”

Professor Schallbruch says that “two factors are incredibly important for the widespread acceptance and use of the app: firstly, very easy usability, and secondly, a high level of trust in the publisher of the app. If people are worried about what will happen with the data from the app, especially if they are infected themselves, they will refrain from using it.”

Whilst in France, where the government is also looking to implement a tracking and tracing app, the general public too have concerns around privacy and the use of data from the app. Professor Margherita Pagani, Director of the Research Center on Artificial Intelligence in Value Creation at emlyon business school, who has been researching track and tracing apps in South Korea, Singapore and China, says that “apps must meet specific criteria around privacy, security, and data control” and has cited the European Union’s published guidelines for contact-tracing apps as a way to ensure this. “The requirements dictate that apps should be voluntary, approved by national health authorities, preserve user privacy and should be dismantled as soon as they are no longer needed, this is important,” Professor Pagani says.

And use of the app has to be aligned to a wider strategy to tackle COVID-19 in France as well, according to Professor Pagani, who says that “contact tracing is a valuable tool to help limit the spread of the virus, but of course this should be accompanied by other measures more related to health interventions. The app is only a tool to provide a measure and try to limit the risk of spread of the contagion.”

What is clear from the experts is that the app is not a substitute for other, more important and more effective COVID-19 policies. In order for it to have a positive impact on tackling the spread of infections across Europe, there has to be distinct interventions and protocols in place for what happens next after being alerted you may have been in contact with someone infected. What else is key, is the downloading and usage of the app, and a high level of trust in the government and its intentions is too, something that may differ from country to country, and is difficult to secure.

Professor Schallbruch says though, “compared to curfews and contact restrictions, a tracing app is a far less drastic way to prevent infections. Discussions about privacy are legitimate, but they must not lead to the hindrance of this useful tool”.

So, perhaps an app is the most realistic way for us to return to some sort of normality, however this can only be achieved if it is effective, has the full support of the public, and most importantly, complemented with vitally important testing and containing policies.