Rising app deletions, over 600,000 pings in one week, stores trying to quell panic buying, conflicting advice from the Government when it comes to notifications. The NHS contact tracing app is facing a nightmare backdrop as infection rates rise across the country. It should be a major asset. Instead, the frequent un-contextualised notifications demonstrate that health tech can sometimes cause more issues than it helps solve, irritating people to the point of deletion.
From the start of the app, it has been plagued with problems. By design, it required large scale active adoption in order to be function and make a dent in the spread. Now that it is actively working, it’s also facing a mixture of confused official advice. “Ignore the app advice” from Business ministerPaul Scully, “Don’t ignore the app advice” from Downing Street, a mirror of a Matt Lucas comedy sketch.
It’s not just humiliating, it has necessitated the Government to sheepishly introduce new advice to excuse critical workers from self isolation to prevent supply chains collapsing.
The real embarrassment comes from the fact that the UK, as a whole, does app development and tech really well. We have great thinkers in this space, who know how to apply consumer psychology nudge tactics proven to encourage positive behaviour, from banking apps sending warnings on poor spending habits to simple SMS reminders to pay court fines. The app may have been rushed to greenlight, but with a closer eye on the importance of incorporating context it would have been simple for it to differentiate between people’s home, work, and other environments. It could have stopped people from being pinged through walls because their neighbours have had an alert. It’s a very visible international failure for the UK’s digital economy.
So, what now? The apps have always relied on trust – trust to download, to keep using, and to act on the responses. This has been obviously undermined, pulling the rug out from under the contact tracing system.
We all know that if we receive frequent irrelevant emails we delete them and are unlikely to pay attention to that brand. Immediate updates to the in-app messages can easily be made. Clarity about “best practice behaviour” to limit the need for self-isolation, including wearing masks as a priority in places of high-transmissibility and frequent testing. The government needs to tighten the strength of its language and focus on contextualising actions rather than a universal “isolate” message.
It is completely feasible to make a critical update to the contact tracing app to incorporate more anonymised context. It was always unrealistic to expect people to manually check-in to venues at scale consistently. Using Google’s Places API which has 99 per cent coverage of UK locations would provide critical location context to help individuals make smart informed decisions. Just this change makes a basic “isolate” message more informed with “it is likely you were exposed in this location, take these steps”. Even with privacy concerns people see the value, to stay safe and get back to normality faster. We think nothing of sharing our location with food delivery and fitness apps because they provide a clear value to us.
Finally, we know that testing is the key to confidently stopping virus transmission in its tracks. NHS reporting of lateral flow test results could easily demand a picture is taken of the test strip. There is a unique number assigned to every test, it’s in the QR code. Simple image recognition technology is truly easy to both implement and run. This will automatically read the QR code and the red-lines to provide confidence in negative results.
It’s hard to put the genie back into the bottle, but trust in the Test & Trace has to be restored if it is to fulfil its role and keep our country open by stopping Covid spreading exponentially. It has to be actively reinforced with clarity that if it is pinging, it is working – that the alerts are not a nuisance but stimulate responsible action to target transmission.