With contact tracing, don’t let perceptions of big tech be the enemy of the greater good

Experts say the U.S. will need about 300,000 human tracers to chart and break ongoing expansion of the coronavirus pandemic, but we currently only have between 8,000 and 14,000. In a recent Rock Health post, the firm recommends combining a surge in human tracers, digital technologies to capture and share accurate and timely data with public health departments, and the will for public health organizations to share this data with people at the community level.

Big tech is stepping up to play a part: on April 10, Google and Apple announced that they are partnering on a COVID-19 contact tracing platform that will enable interoperability between Android and iOS devices and Bluetooth-based contact tracing. However, a recent survey shows that 59 percent of respondents are unwilling or unable to use this contact tracing software.

The public’s reaction to data sharing with the government or large tech companies doesn’t come as a surprise. An annual survey conducted by Rock Health last year shows that Americans are most widely unwilling to share their health data with the government and big tech.

Countries such as South Korea and Singapore that have successfully brought their COVID-19 case numbers under control used a combination of digital monitoring and human contact tracers. But although Google and Apple assure people that the development environment is designed to preserve privacy, people are still suspicious.

In order to combat this lack of trust, Rock Health believes Apple, Google, public health leaders, and others at the forefront of contact tracing effort must act on three fronts:

  • Clear up the misconception that technology alone is a solution for our current needs.
  • Embrace a multi-modal approach to who and how information is gathered.
  • Quickly define what types of data will be valued by human contact tracers and the individuals who may embrace DTC applications that disseminate public information.

“I don’t think the messaging about the potential for big data in health care has come through to the general population,” said Rock Health Chief Operating Officer Megan Zweig. “If my data is shared—even in a de-identified, aggregated way—what is the individual value that’s ultimately going to be flowing back to me, and can I give consent around that?”

Ultimately, the move to contact tracing will require a massive surge in human capital (in public health departments). It will also depend on a strong measure of individuals choosing to trade aspects of their freedom for the collective good. “Our hope is that public health departments, the federal government, and technology companies will undertake an effort to combine digital and human tracing to scale an absolutely critical task,” the authors conclude.

Read the full article here.