Teresa Scassa - Blog

Wednesday, 07 October 2020 06:40

Global Pandemic App Watch site tracks uptake of COVID-19 contact tracing apps

Written by  Teresa Scassa
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Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, as discussions swirled around the adoption of exposure notification or contact-tracing apps (CT/EN apps), Jason Millar, Kelly Bronson and I, and our outstanding students, Tommy Friedlich and Ryan Mosoff, began to explore the privacy and socio-ethical implications related to the creation, adoption and deployment of these apps. As part of this research we gathered data about contact-tracing apps around the world. This week we are launching a website – Global Pandemic App Watch (GPAW) – that uses some of the data we have gathered to provide a global look at the state of adoption of CT/EN apps. The website hosts three main maps; each focuses on different issues. There is also a series of country pages providing additional information about CT/EN apps adopted in different countries. GPAW is a work in progress. Gaining access to meaningful data on use and adoption of apps has been difficult, in part because in many jurisdictions good data is not being collected or, if collected, is not shared. Language has been a barrier to obtaining information in some cases. This is also a rapidly evolving area so that it is possible to miss or be behind with respect to new developments. Our focus is on apps, and not on more complex multi-technology disease and human surveillance strategies; these latter are not represented on the map. However, we believe that GPAW offers an interesting perspective on CT/EN apps.

One issue facing governments that adopt contact tracing or exposure notification apps is what underlying technology to use. Singapore’s early TraceTogether app offered a centralized model that proved interesting to other governments. Australia has been its most notable adopter. The province of Alberta in Canada adopted an app based on TraceTogether, although its future is now in doubt. Other countries considered the development of their own apps, exploring options – usually with local developers – that would integrate in different ways with public health agency needs. Some of these countries have proceeded with their own apps (e.g. France). Others faced public pressure and backed away from apps that might collect and store data centrally (e.g. Germany). The Google-Apple Exposure Notification (GAEN) API, which evolved in this period, offered a model of decentralized data storage that was touted as more privacy-friendly. GAEN (and particularly the more recent Exposure Notification Express) also streamlines the app development process making it easier to adopt. Nevertheless, because of the fully decentralized model, it is more difficult to integrate GAEN with broader goals or data needs of public health authorities.

Although the GAEN garnered considerable attention, a glance at our first map shows that its adoption is far from universal. Many other countries have chosen different options. We are interested in this diversity of apps. As noted above, there may be reasons to choose a more centralized model in order to better integrate a CT/EN app with public health agency activities. We suspect that there is also interest in many jurisdictions in using a CT/EN app as a vehicle for supporting local IT developers. The GAEN model perhaps responds best to concerns over privacy and civil liberties; it is interesting to see that its adoption is strong in the EU and in Canada where such concerns may be heightened. Several US states have also adopted or are in the process of adopting GAEN-based contact tracing apps.

Another feature of the first map that we wish to highlight is the interesting challenge posed by federal states. Canada is shown as uniformly adopting a GAEN model, but this does not reflect the story of how it moved in this direction. As noted earlier, Alberta was an early adopter of a different sort of app based on Singapore’s TraceTogether API. Ontario was the first to adopt the federal COVIDAlert. Other provinces have since announced that they will follow suit, including Alberta, but adoption is not yet universal across the country. The US is represented on the map as “various” because it too is a federal state, and no national app has been adopted. Some states have begun to adopt or develop their own apps (these developments are reported on a separate US Map.) Suffice it to say – federalism presents unique challenges. Where different apps are adopted in a single country or region, there can be issues of interoperability. This pits broader concerns about functionality against issues of regional autonomy. The Canadian and US stories around app adoption would make an interesting comparison. The EU, with its multiple apps and free movement of citizens within the EU is similarly an interesting case study in this regard.

Our second map visualizes uptake. CT/EN apps require significant levels of adoption to be useful, although there are differences of opinion as to what level of adoption is optimal. We have found it challenging to get accurate data about adoption levels and our map reflects this. Where data is available, numbers tend to be relatively low, although it will be interesting to see if a second wave (or third in some countries) pushes adoption to higher levels – and at what rate. It is interesting to consider what may lie behind poor access to adoption data. A lack of transparency about the metrics for evaluating the success/failure of these rapidly deployed technologies is worrisome. It may be that providing such data is a low priority in a pandemic; it may also be that governments do not wish to potentially discourage adoption by revealing low uptake numbers. Some countries, have had much better adoption rates than others. It would be interesting to consider why this might be the case. Are higher adoption rates related to greater trust in government? Greater concerns about the pandemic? Better government messaging?

Our final map looks at whether CT/EN apps have been made optional or mandatory in the countries in which they have been launched. This has been a hot button issue. Some groups or individuals have argued for making such apps mandatory in order to meet public health objectives. Others have raised civil liberties concerns. Underlying this, of course, is the reality that the technology on which these apps operate is not universally available. It would be difficult to make mandatory an app if not everyone could comply because they did not have a smart phone with a compatible operating system. Some jurisdictions have begun to explore the adoption of ‘fob’ technologies that could give greater access to contact tracing applications. Our map shows that currently only one country has adopted a mandatory CT/EN app. The overwhelming majority are voluntary. That said, we have begun to hear of cases in which the use of these apps is required by employers who are looking for tools to track exposure within the workplace, undermining their voluntary nature. As far as we are aware, only Australia has addressed this function-creep in specific app-related legislation.

The actual usefulness of CT/EN apps remains an open question. Concerns have been raised about their technological deficiencies leading to potential false positives and false negatives. It is not clear whether CT apps actually catch many cases not already caught by manual contact-tracing activities. Of course, when normal contact tracing starts to buckle under pressure from a second wave, as is the case now in Ontario, the app takes on a greater role. Nevertheless, with GAEN apps, there is no two-way interface with the public health system. It would be interesting to know how many people receive notifications through the app, and how many of those present themselves for testing – or take recommended actions such as self-quarantining. It would be useful to have a variety of data to assess the reliability and effectiveness of these technologies, but it is not clear that such data will be collected by governments or public health authorities or, if it is collected, whether it will be made readily available.

We hope that you will find our maps interesting and useful. The country pages, as they develop will provide additional information, as well as links to numerous articles and other materials about the apps that we have been collecting since the beginning of the pandemic. We think the project raises a number of interesting unanswered questions that will linger well into the future. Our current plan is to update the site weekly. There is space on the site to provide feedback, comments, and even data should you have it to share.

Our work has been generously supported This project is partially funded by the Scotiabank Fund for AI and Society at the University of Ottawa, SSHRC and the Centre for Law, Technology and Society at the University of Ottawa.

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