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Developing apps to fight COVID-19

Nathaniel O'Grady

 

Dr Nathaniel O'Grady is a Lecturer in Human Geography and Disaster at the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute at The University of Manchester

Across the world governments are developing apps to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus. Nathaniel O’Grady looks at what local authorities need to consider before such an app is adopted in the UK.

Across the world, countries are trying to develop contact tracing apps that can best identify and control the spread of the coronavirus. Indeed here in the UK an app developed by NHSX, the health service’s digital transformation unit, may be ready to use as soon as next month.

The logic behind the UK app, which will likely function through deriving Bluetooth-sourced location data, is quite simple. Basically, once someone has downloaded the app and either self-declares or tests positive for the virus then messages will be sent to everyone they have come into contact with, advising testing or self-isolation.

With its roll-out likely to coincide with the partial easing of lockdown restrictions, the app’s purpose will be limited to preventing or minimising the resurgence of the disease. Particularly relevant for the focus of our project, its implementation could feature as part of UK government’s strategy for recovering from the virus. As we wrote in our last blog, this recovery should be phased, broken up into short-term and long-term stages, and look to remedy the mistakes made in the past which have exacerbated the virus’s effects in the present.

Next steps

The particular arrangement for the development and release of the app is probably still some time away. Nevertheless, there are four key points that will be need to be considered before any roll-out begins:

One: No replacement for contact tracing based on mass testing

It is important to avoid the idea that technology provides the sole answer to such a complex problem as coronavirus.

Research shows that it is highly unlikely that downloads of the app will be huge if, as planned, people will have to volunteer and opt-in. Even if someone downloads the app and reports and self-declares, it will not necessarily be the case that those they have come into contact with have downloaded the app and will therefore receive the message.

In its current form, people might also self-diagnose as positive without verification that they have the disease. As such it is crucial that the app is not seen as a way to replace the mass testing that will generate data to inform highly accurate contact tracing and prevent resurgence of the virus.

Two: The digital divide

Connected to the first issue is the digital divide and the fact that many people – and particularly the most vulnerable - will not have access to the Bluetooth technology required for the app to work. Also, with phones being a surface on which the virus may thrive for days, the public might not take their phones outside, meaning they cannot be contact traced.

It is therefore crucial that local authorities consider and implement a range of other strategies to communicate the spread of the disease to the public. This might include mass text messaging on the basis of actual testing in the area, or using public display screens.

Three: Privacy and security

Privacy and security will be at the forefront of many minds. It is not clear yet whether those using the app will self-diagnose or be tested, but in many ways it would be better if they were clinically tested before messages were released to the general public – not least to ensure that anxiety over the spread of the disease isn’t spread unnecessarily with wrongful diagnosis.

However there are concerns that the release of highly sensitive medical data could potentially be hacked. To ease these concerns the app must be crafted in compliance with the safety rules about the use of data as codified in the NHS Caldicott principles which cite that organisations should ensure that information that can identify a patient is protected.

Four: Technological lock-in?

The app’s implementation raises further governance issues that need serious consideration from local authorities. For instance, is there the possibility of ‘technological lock-in’s where local government becomes dependent on one particular company’s technology to address the disease? In such a scenario how do you balance the interests of private companies with decisions being made for the public good? Following international examples, local authorities might establish a committee to scrutinise the use of data and establish contingency plans if their security is breached.

Summary

If deployed in a measured way apps could be part of the UK’s recovery from the coronavirus. But they can only do so if they are thought of as one component within a broader recovery strategy that looks specifically to build a fairer society addressing the vulnerabilities in the UK that the disease has exposed.

This article was also published on the LocalGov website.  

*Staff from across The University of Manchester, including Alliance MBS, are working with organisations around the UK to develop successful plans for ensuring their recovery from COVID-19. Find out more and sign up for the ‘Manchester Briefing’ on COVID-19 recovery.