Dr Elaine Garcia, senior programme leader at London School of Business and Finance (LSBF), writes about the adoption of track and trace apps amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Most people now have a smartphone or similar devices with them at most times. This not only provides a great opportunity to use the available smart technologies to help manage coming out of lockdown, but also to limit the reoccurrence of widespread virus outbreaks in the future. It is unsurprising, therefore, that a number of governments around the world, as well as technology giants, have become interested in creating such apps.
The aim of such apps is to allow those who have been in close contact with anyone confirmed to have COVID-19 to be tracked and traced, and then asked to self-isolate in order to stop the spread of the virus and prevent ongoing transmission. Whilst the concept of such apps can be seen to have a number of advantages, their adoption and development have in fact become complicated and, so far, fairly ineffective.
One of the first issues faced by governments seeking to develop such a system has been whether the app should be centralised or decentralised. Within a centralised approach, data is stored on central servers where matches are made. By contrast, within a decentralised system, data is retained on users’ phones and information is not maintained centrally.
Initially, many governments sought to apply centralised approaches to development. This approach is favoured by some governments due to the fact that maintaining centralised data will allow analysts to be able to review the trends and patterns seen within the data. This, in turn, helps to track the pandemic at a wider level and identify potential hot spots and outbreaks.
This approach is, however, also open to potential misuse. There are concerns around privacy and security that have not been entirely dealt with, including what will happen to data once it is no longer needed. In addition, the centralised approach is not supported by Google and Apple, who are instead developing a decentralised approach which has resulted in some difficulties in the development of a workable centralised approach.
It is interesting to note that as a result of the issues identified, many governments (including the UK) which were considering using a centralised approach are now moving to a decentralised one. These moves also highlight the manner in which tech giants are able to influence the development of such strategies and can prevent uses of its technology which does not meet its policies.
The manner in which many governments are now moving to a decentralised system will solve another issue associated with the centralised and decentralised approaches. Because of the manner in which these two different systems work, these two types of approaches will not be able to work in tandem. With many countries now adopting the same approach, these apps are more likely to be able to work across borders and allow tracking in a much more effective way.
Whilst an effective track and trace app would now appear to be closer to realisation, it is still important to be aware that such apps can only be successful if a sufficient number of phone users download and use it.
So far, within countries which have adopted an app, the active usage of the track and trace app appears to be about 20% of users. To effectively reduce the virus, around 60% of people need to download and use a track and trace app. Therefore, the examples of countries which are already using such apps do not appear to suggest that apps will be our way out of the pandemic for now.