Let me state this right from the start. My issues with the new COVID tracking app, in trial on the Isle of Wight, do not come from the security of the system. Nor the speed with which it has been rolled out – which has been expedited for necessity. Nor the politics. It’s more based on its lack of interaction with other tech platforms to make it truly innovative and effective, and the somewhat blinkered approach to how pivotal the app could be in nudging the population gently towards behavioural change at such a key time.
Everyday, I see and experience first-hand the understanding and application of tech across Google, Facebook, ad partners, health and tracking technologies. It’s not only my job, it’s something I enjoy doing as a digital specialist.
I’m also lucky to work with the biggest global companies in retail, consumer tech, and healthcare to securely build privacy-first applications. These are solutions with one objective in mind: building intelligence that enables behavioural action, known in behavioural sciences as 'behavioural nudges'.
From what I have seen of the app, it not only has at its heart outdated data collection technology – which, in fairness, may stem from its being built very quickly thanks to a pressing need. But it also doesn't recognise usability and intelligence triggered action-ability as its key purpose.
Tracking and data capture is the simple bit of the app’s functionality. Well and good. However, they should, could, and haven't worked with some of the leading lights in tech – Google, Facebook, Adobe or Microsoft, not to mention myriad other potential tech partners. These companies have spent their lives’ work investing time and energy into developing the infrastructure, scale, experience design – and most importantly the data – integrated to drive meaningful action at scale now.
For this app to add value, insight and effectiveness to the current situation, it needs c70% of the population to download and use it, across the right mix of demographic groups. It’s a big ask – can you think of another app in existence in use by old and young alike? Only by harnessing this existing scale can it collect enough data for the insight to be useable in arresting the spread of the virus. With the current app, this data will have massive gaps and will NOT enable meaningful action like it has in Korea and New Zealand. Yes, this is a feasibility test – it’s not a full scale roll out. But it could have been so much more – especially given the frankly awesome software tool that Apple and Google have released to enable contact tracing apps to build on this to deliver ground-breaking features for understanding and controlling COVID-19 as well as other viruses from taking hold now and in the future.
There are features the app should have but can't without some level of integration with the tech giants like Google (who are GDPR compliant). To name just a few; Google Maps has the biggest accurate data set of contextual geo-location data. An integration like this would make it easy to enforce clear guidelines via small and large businesses alike, and trigger these alerts based on a user’s location via the app. These ‘nudges’, whether push context notifications or via existing context data in Google/Apple maps it could truly underline the importance of social distancing and 'alertness' at the times it is most critical.
Action has to be simple, tangible and in the moment. In this way the app could encourage robustness, accuracy and visibility of guidelines in the spread of the disease – it just hasn’t been thought through sufficiently to drive behaviours and also sustain beyond the short-term. People will lose interest over time.
User experience and behavioural action is a key missed opportunity. We are going to need to be reminded, over and again, of what steps we should all be taking as certain areas of life ease once we’ve exited lockdown. Intervention nudging would be an asset - walk into a Tube station, and a Beacon via the BT WiFi network that exists nationwide at scale can ping a notification reminding you, in the context of where you are, of what action or precautions to take.
If this were a commercial project, it would be held to account with strict KPIs and also the lens of avoiding it slipping into technical debt. Understand the use case. Consider your desired outcomes. Above all things make sure it delivers its purpose now and also ongoing – remember up to 600,000 people still lose their lives globally to seasonal influenza. This opportunity was an unprecedented one for tech specialists the nation over; not only to document this era-defining outbreak, but to also positively aid and guide the individuals working every day to put one foot in front of the other, help their families, friends and communities, and ultimately – stay healthy.
The current iteration of the trial app just doesn’t do this yet – even in a privacy conscious, non-Big Brother way. People should be able to find it a helpful aide in a difficult time. Instead, what the app creates is technical debt – something that will be adopted but will not drive change, or really protect the population. It will instead collect and track a small proportion of inaccurate, potentially misleading, un-contextualised data.
Of course, it’s much easier to be a critic than a builder, and I can’t speak from the perspective or intentions of the specialists behind this app. But from a purely digital and UX perspective, I can’t help but feel this is a dramatically missed opportunity to thing about actions to save lives but also create a platform to keep the momentum and relevance driving sustainable shifts in our behaviours to build safer communities, protect the most vulnerable and support our key workers.
By Anthony Magee, Director of Data & Experience Technology, SYZYGY
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