Trust in COVID Tracer app needs to be built to see sufficient uptake - Anna Brown

The rapid identification, tracing and isolation of cases of COVID-19 is imperative to stamping out the virus - but as health officials drive home the message that contact tracing is essential to New Zealand's continued success, the voice of the people is getting lost, says associate professor Anna Brown.

"I think because the Government are having to work at speed, they [are] forgetting about the very important and transparent public engagement that's needed for high trust in Government and the things they do," Brown, who is the director of research unit Toi Aria: Design for Public Good at Massey University, told Magic Talk's Sunday Cafe host Roman Travers.

In May, the Government launched the NZ COVID Tracer app for New Zealanders to record their locations via QR codes supplied by various businesses. The app, described as a "digital diary" by the Ministry of Health, stores the user's location history and allows health officials to quickly trace possible contacts of a future infection or outbreak. The data is deleted after 31 days. 

However, the app has been met with mixed reviews, with many complaining of registration issues, a clunky format and problems with scanning QR code posters. It has also attracted criticism in the form of privacy concerns, with many New Zealanders unsure if their data is secure. 

As nations around the world work at pace to develop and deploy new digital technologies amid the pandemic, Brown believes public trust must also be built at speed - otherwise apps will not have enough users to be effective. 

"New Zealanders really want to know that they can trust that this app works... that the intended result of the app can happen. They want to have evidence that the value is high. They want to be able to articulate their needs, requirements and concerns... that's sometimes lost in these processes. They want to have their questions answered and their issues assured."

On Saturday, a working paper titled 'Digital Contact Tracing for COVID-19: A Primer for Policymakers' was released by The Centre for Social Data Analytics at the Auckland University of Technology and the Institute for Social Science Research at the University of Queensland. The paper highlights the need for digital contract tracing solutions to have exceptional speed, high take-up rates and demonstrable value. 

A high uptake of users is essential for the app's success 

As a contributor to the research, Brown says without significant uptake, digital contact tracing is close to useless. For these measures to work, roughly 60 percent of the population should be utilising the technology - as of Sunday, 517,000 New Zealanders - roughly 10.6 percent of the population - have registered for the app. In Australia, roughly six million people have downloaded the government's contact tracing equivalent to date - a far cry from the official aim of a 40 percent uptake. 

"For this to work really well you need a really, really high uptake, which has proven difficult around the world... so how do we do that? You need a high uptake, you need high trust - you need to know it works. Those things are not straightforward to do all together and at speed," Brown told Travers. 

"It's less than ideal if you don't have uptake. It enables people to feel they are safe, but it needs to be more than feeling - there needs to be evidence and ideally an impact evaluation, to allow people to judge there is valuable impact for these tools... I still think for us to trust that technology will be used in useful ways, we need to know the processes are working."

The research also found users had concerns about equity and fairness, with Brown noting  the importance of safety for all demographics. As a percentage of Kiwis are without smartphone access, there are people who are excluded from digital contact tracing efforts. 

Privacy is an undeniable concern

Brown noted that New Zealanders want to know why their data is being collected; where it is being used; how it is being shared; who will benefit from it; how it will be provided to others; whether it's secure; if they can be anonymous; if they can see, correct and delete data, particularly if it's wrong; whether they will be asked for consent; and that their data will not be sold. 

"These are general concerns. Privacy is just one of those things, but it's that holistic view of all these things together with a clear purpose for the use of the data and the technology, that means people will have maximised trust and will want to use technology for a public good."

Another worry is that many New Zealanders lack a sound understanding of manual contact tracing and what it entails, according to the research, which means the use of automatic contact tracing apps will prove problematic. Brown says clear messaging around the technology is essential to ensuring Kiwis are educated on the process, which in turn will increase public trust in the measure. 

The research also identified the risk of social stigmatisation as a concern, if the app data were used to alert people of identifiable positive cases or high-risk areas.

The paper is calling on the Government to launch an impact evaluation on COVID-19 apps that will enable the public to judge the value of a tool before they commit to using it, Brown says. 

The researchers believe the transparency will increase levels of trust in the Government as well as uptake, meaning the effectiveness of the digital contact tracing efforts will also be improved.