Why contact tracing apps fail: IT experts share 5 reasons

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Most tech platforms fail because they never establish a large enough base of engaged users, which is likely what will happen to COVID-19 contact tracing apps unless they are redesigned and scaled, according to a July 15 Harvard Business Review report.

For the op-ed, a group of IT experts from Harvard, University of Pavia and University of Oxford explained some of the main reasons why contact tracing apps fail and ideas on how to increase user engagement. 

Five things to know:

1. To be effective, apps need to be "nearly ubiquitous," because their value to users depends on how many other people have downloaded the app and are using it regularly. Further, if only a small portion of people a user comes in contact with are using the app, the platform becomes worthless or potentially harmful because its "indications will be highly inaccurate and could even instill a false sense of security."

2. For contact tracing apps to be effective enough to stop contagion, adoption needs to be at least 60 percent of the population, according to the report. This rate of engagement is challenging and even more so for apps to be individually reliable, which requires even broader adoption to accurately track disease spread.

3. Privacy concerns present a dilemma for adoption because the higher the perception that user privacy is protected, the more people will be inclined to adopt the app. However, stronger privacy protections limit the app's effectiveness of tracking the spread of the virus.

4. While the U.S., U.K. and other countries have made adoption voluntary, China has seen higher success with its coronavirus tracking app because it is mandatory for citizens, according to the report. Voluntary adoption prompts the "chicken-and-egg or cold start problem" for platforms, which means they lack value until they reach a critical mass of users.

5. Rather than launching a contact tracing app to everyone simultaneously, the op-ed authors recommend supporting targeted, small community-based releases and then gradually scale as the mass of users increases. Some community examples to deploy the apps are within families, religious communities, workplaces, schools, hotels and trains.

"In this way, the apps would have value immediately, and adoption within each small community might approach 100 percent," the authors wrote. "Once they gain critical mass in small communities, the apps can gradually be scaled and connected at the regional or national level."

 

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