Why Contact Tracing Apps Will Fail Us

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In 2016, I sat on the tarmac at the airport in Austin, Texas. While watching the movie Contagion, I started to think about the technological realities of a pandemic. I contemplated how we can use technology to track the spread of viruses, identify containment radiuses and inform people who may have been exposed. I knew my company’s movement technology could assist if such a situation were to arise. Little did I know then that just four short years later, our expertise in delivering intelligence on the movement of people would be so critical in understanding the spread of Covid-19.

As the pandemic has proliferated the investments and discussions around technologies, vaccines and other innovative approaches to reducing the spread have skyrocketed. One of the most widely proposed solutions is using technology to help us identify the spread of the virus and then warning those who may have been infected. This is because apart from a universally-accepted vaccine, understanding and mitigating the spread is the only way we will return to in-person interactions anytime soon.

I can better explain this technology with a short review of the history of contact tracing. This is a method that has been used for over a century to help stop the spread of a contagion. The contact tracing process is almost always manual. Typically a nurse or health department worker will interview an infected person, then attempt to map where they have been — and whom they have been in contact with — to isolate those people and places and reduce the likelihood of spreading the contagion further.

So far, this is the approach every state has taken with Covid-19. However, this is a different contagion. It is not an STD where the number of interactions is typically small or a virus-like ebola where infected individuals often show extreme symptoms. Covid-19 is a highly-contagious airborne virus that may be spread by people who don’t show any symptoms, which is much harder to manually track. This is where technology comes in for the assist.

The technology that you’ve probably heard of is contact tracing exposure apps. These applications work much like the little Bluetooth devices you put on your keys so you can track them down with your phone when lost. When devices come into contact with one another, app technology can take notes of other nearby devices. In contact tracing, it works so that if one of those device users tests positive for the virus, they can log the infection in the app, which will then notify any other app users with which the device has come into contact.

This sounds great on paper, but let’s look at reality. University doctors and experts have gone as far to say that for a contact tracing automation technology to be effective for Covid-19, it would need to have at least a 60% adoption rate. A colleague of mine echoed their sentiments, saying that 50% of the population would need to use such an application.

Let’s take a look at what that means. Facebook has around 247 million users in the U.S. and Canada: that’s roughly 67% of the population. That’s the type of hyper-adoption any app protocol would need to be effective. The price in the private sector for getting a user to download a mobile app — not even to use it — can often run upwards of $8 or $10 per download, in my experience. So for this technology to work, we would need to spend billions in advertising and create widespread adoption. But adoption will be further hindered when we account for the privacy backlash — because the idea of having an app on your phone that is “tracking” you will cease download or use for a good portion of the population.

Utah was one of the first states to launch a mobile app in the spring of 2020. By June, only 200 people had enabled location tracking on the app, and the state decided to terminate the contact tracing features. The public resisted being tracked or having something installed on their phone, and widespread misinformation about the app didn’t help the cause.

The reason contact tracing apps will fail us is simple: Adoption rates will be low. If we cannot reach critical mass, the technology will not be useful and will become another piece of “bloatware,” ensuring a public skeptical of contact tracing technology altogether.

So what is the answer? As I discovered on that airplane runway, technology indeed can be used for automatic contact tracing if it is applied appropriately. We should target dense environments, such as colleges, office buildings and government facilities, with technologies we know can achieve 50% percent adoption in a given population.

Does such technology exist? Yes, and it’s probably the most critical technology to all of us since the pandemic began: Wi-Fi.

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