The app we should have had

Early this year the federal government announced it was buying in a contact tracing app that hadn’t worked in Singapore. The ‘CovidSafe’ app uses a wireless protocol to connect with nearby phones that are also running the app, to record an encrypted ID for each person the phone’s owner had contact with. The government refused to wait until Apple and Google had released an update that solved key problems, such as the way iOS shuts down apps that aren’t in use, particularly when the phone is locked. It claimed the app would allow us to exit lockdown and return to public life, so long as at least 60% of the population downloaded and installed it on their phones. However, total downloads stalled around 25-30% of the population, with the public perhaps remembering the privacy fiasco over the MyHealthRecord. The state governments that actually do the contact tracing reported it was of no use, and it was quietly dropped.

The app was meant to compensate for a human flaw — the difficulty of remembering where we’ve been and who we’ve met, going back up to fourteen days from exposure through to viraemia and finally immunity. Indeed, we don’t know who we’ve met on public transport, or in the queue for the supermarket. The design aims to take the human agent out of the picture altogether, instead relying on cool, hard technology to capture encounters with machinic precision. Yet the design and implementation embed and reflect the all-too-human vices of hubris and impatience, and what Evgeny Morozov called ‘solutionism.’ 

The problem that needs solving

It was also a gigantic missed opportunity to design an app that could have solved a long-lasting problem for citizens and governments alike. Imagine, instead of assuming humans are incapable, we designed something that could support and enhance our capability. We are deluged with information about the outbreak and limited in the time and effort we can devote to processing it. Reflect for one second on how you get your information about the outbreak: daily press conferences top the list, followed by media coverage of them and social media conversations about them. The situation is dynamic and right now, restrictions are changing almost daily. The amount of information that we need to process and respond to can be overwhelming, even for English speakers —and as far as I’m aware, no government translates them into other languages. 

I want to single out one issue: indications and requirements for testing. Each day, governments release a list of locations and times. If you were at the Apollo Restaurant in Potts Point on August 28th between 11AM and 9PM, please… go straight into quarantine? Seek testing? And then what — stay home until you get a negative result, or go about your day-to-day life? Misunderstandings about these requirements have become a matter of national scandal, fuelled by governments shifting blame for the outbreak onto ‘individuals doing the wrong thing.’ But their communication is haphazard. I just got a swab at a respiratory clinic and received no instruction to isolate until I got a result. And apart from the difficulty of remembering when you were there, this approach relies on people catching a momentary reference to the restaurant in media coverage. 

’If you were on the 8.12am service departing Central to Sydenham, please seek testing…’ Was I on that service? I caught a morning train at Museum, who knows what time it departed Central. Nah, probably not.

What the app should do instead

A few years back I was a bit startled, but basically pleased* to discover the Google Maps app had been tracking every trip I made, every day. (* This is pretty creepy but quite useful if you’re an ethnographer like me.)

Screen captures for my Sunday adventure from the Google Maps app

So just do that: remember where I’ve been, for me. In the second image, Google Maps is asking if I was at my usual morning café Warren & Holt.

If NSW Health announces there’s a case or cluster associated with that location, the app should notify me. If I take a long train journey and NSW Health later discovers one of the other passengers was a case, they can publish that information in a machine-readable format. The app checks that information for updates and if it matches my own data, it can notify me. In this vision, the app would not ‘phone home’ and notify anyone else. This is an approach to contact tracing that empowers the user, providing a precious resource — tailored information — and trusting them to act on it.

Edit 6 Aug — writing late at night, I sometimes forget to mention my main point. In this case: if I am traced as a contact or I get a positive test result, I can use the app to remember and relate details of my travels and encounters. I don’t need to send any data to the contact tracers other than by having a conversation with them, which allows the contact tracer themselves to use their own practice wisdom and personal intuition to ask questions an app could never answer.

This suggests a second function. I’m a reasonably educated guy, I can follow a complicated recipe, I’m literally a regulatory scholar, and I still find some of the advice on testing, isolation, and quarantine requirements confusing. The app should just tell me, here’s the nearest Covid-19 testing clinic. Here are their opening hours. Here’s a link to make an appointment. You should go home and stay home until you’ve had that test and got your result. If you need it, here’s a link to apply for a cash payment in case you have no income or paid leave. These details vary from one jurisdiction to another. The information should be supplied by governments in a format the app can parse and present to the user.

Finally, a third function. When regulations and services change, governments should be able to push out notifications to app users based on their location. This should be systematic but sparing, to avoid overwhelming app users. And — fucksake — governments should translate this information into languages other than English. If government is announcing new restrictions that can create criminal liability, it’s a matter of basic human rights that it translates the announcement into the languages in use in the whole community. It shouldn’t be left to communities of people trying to cope with the cops showing up and locking down their residential towers to make their own translations on the fly. The app should provide easy access to updates on the current situation in multiple languages, easily shareable via chat apps and social media. 

Who should do it?

Google, with input from Apple. The federal government dropped the ball. State and territory governments will take forever and develop their own separate apps with varying degrees of functionality. And none of these apps will have access to the location data Google already collects — the routes taken and the database of premises, transport routes, etc. Google should define the machine language and establish a secure API for accredited government users. It has existing expertise in interface design, user testing, security, hardware integration and regulatory compliance.

The key to this approach is that it coordinates the strengths of different actors: Google for apps and platforms, governments who determine regulations and provide information, and users, who almost always want to do the right thing if they are supported to do so. The last is a foundational principle for both adult education and social marketing — people see themselves as independent actors and respond best when you respect their agency and empower them to act.

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