What the British flood of secret warnings means for exposure applications


“Over 600,000 people were told to isolate themselves from the NHS covid-19 application during the week of July 8 in England and Wales,” she says, “but that’s just a little more than twice as many new positive cases in the same period. While we had concerns about the justification of the contact search app, criticism for the ‘pingdemia’ was misplaced: the app basically works as always. “

Christophe Fraser, an epidemiologist at the Oxford University Institute for Big Data who did the most prominent studies on application efficiency, says that, although it works as intended, there is another problem: a significant breakdown in the social contract. “People can see on TV that there are raves and nightclubs. Why am I being told to stay home? Which is fair, to be honest, ”he says.

It is this lack of clear, fair rules that leads to widespread frustration because people are told to isolate themselves. As we saw during the pandemic, public health technology is deeply intertwined with everything around it – the way it is sold, the way it is talked about in the media, the way your doctor discusses it, the way it is supported (or not) by legislators.

“People really want to do the right thing,” Fraser says. “They need to be filled halfway.”

How we got here

Exposure notification applications are a digital public health tactic introduced during the pandemic – and have already met with a lot of criticism from those who say they didn’t get enough to use. Dozens of countries built-in apps to alert users to hidden exposure, code sharing, and the use of co-developed frameworks Google and Apple. But amid criticism over privacy concerns and technological breakdowns, rude people have accused apps launching too late in a pandemic – at a time when the number of cases was too high for technology to bring back the tide.

So, wouldn’t this moment in the UK – when technical disruptions are ironed out, when adoption is high and with new waves of waves – not the right time for its application to make a real difference?

“Science is not so much a challenge … a challenge is about behavior. The hardest parts of a system are the parts where you need to convince people to do something.”

Jenny Wanger, Linux Foundation Public Health

Not if people don’t voluntarily follow isolation instructions, says Jenny Wanger, who runs covid-related technical initiatives for the Linux Foundation Public Health.

Eighteen months after a pandemic, “technology isn’t usually a challenge,” she says. “Science is not so much a challenge … at this point we know how secret transmission works. The challenge comes around behavior. The hardest parts of the system are the parts where you need to convince people to do something – based on best practices, of course. “

Oxford’s Fraser says he thinks about it in terms of incentives. For the average person, he says, incentives to follow contact search rules – digital or otherwise – are not always given.

If the result of using the app is that “you end up in quarantine, but your neighbor who didn’t install the app doesn’t go to quarantine,” he says, “that doesn’t have to feel fair, does it?”

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