My name is Dimitri Tokmetzis, and I’m taking over the newsletter from Morgan Meaker, who is moving on to a new job. I worked with Morgan on the Track(ed) Together project. In this newsletter I’d like to take a closer look at contact-tracing apps, something I think we should be talking about a lot more.
I’m old enough to remember six months ago, when many governments told us that lockdowns could only be lifted once we had a contact-tracing app available. The idea was that we needed a tool to alert infected people faster so they could get tested and isolate faster.
But in practice it was a lot more complicated than that.
Many countries couldn’t even get an app off the ground. It didn’t help that in May Google and Apple both announced a set of new technical requirements that contact-tracing apps would need to meet in order to work on Android phones and iPhones. This sent Germany, England, France, and several states in the US back to the drawing board.
At this point, most countries do have an app. England and Wales launched one at the end of September, but by that time the enthusiasm for it had cooled considerably in the wake of the many missteps that the government had made in fighting the pandemic. And Scotland had already launched its own version – so much for the “United” Kingdom. In the US, the federal government did not take action on this at all, so a group of tech nerds went ahead and built their own coronavirus app. Meanwhile, in my own country of the Netherlands, there’s been an app ready to go for months, but because we had to wait for changes in legislation to accommodate it, it only went live this past weekend. Very frustrating.
One of the few countries where it did seem to be going well with the coronavirus app was Germany – as many as 18 million people installed it. But even that is not enough. For the app to be effective, you need at least half of the population to use it, not barely a quarter, a government spokesperson said. Analysis has shown that only 5-6% of infections are being identified using the app.
And then there’s the recent study by researchers at University College London which shows that unless enough people are using them (which virtually no country has managed to achieve), tracing apps have very little effect. It’s also difficult to measure the effectiveness of the apps; the architecture that Google and Apple forced on developers makes it difficult to evaluate an app, because the data needed to do so is not saved.
Nonetheless, the European commission is investigating whether the national contact-tracing apps in the EU could be interlinked to enable tracing of international travellers. A good idea, but maybe a little late.
To be honest, I think that back in March many governments were suffering from tunnel vision. They were under tremendous pressure to take fast action and were largely copying each other’s plans without really thinking about what information is needed, what the goal of the app should be and how far to go with follow-up on reports: if you don’t have testing, then a report of a potential infection probably doesn’t get you very much.
In recent months we have written a number of pieces about the problems with coronavirus apps, and, as I see it, these are the two main takeaways:
- Coronavirus apps show that no government can really get by without Apple and Google anymore.
- If there is a fast route out of lockdown, an app isn’t it.
I still haven’t been able to find any examples of contact-tracing apps that I would call a success story. If you know of any, do let me know.
How many contact-tracing apps are there now?
This is difficult to say, because many new ones have appeared, especially in the last two months. We are currently compiling a list, but what we have right now in our Track(ed) Together database is:
- 140 contact-tracing systems, both in countries and within companies (eg in the port of Antwerp).
- 108 of these are apps; others use things like telecom data to map out contacts between people.
- 17 apps have been launched or are in development in the US alone.
Some recommended reading
In May, Google and Apple forced governments to change their plans for contact-tracing apps. This prompted us to take a look at the growing power of the big tech companies like Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook. As part of that research I’ve read a lot in recent weeks about ideas, some quite radical, for curbing that power. These three pieces are a good starting point:
- Former Euro MP Marietje Schaake had a number of good arguments in her piece in Technology Review.
- At the end of last year, Ben Tarnoff wrote an interesting piece about the underlying problem of Big Tech: the general failure of capitalism.
- And: should we look at social media as the new tobacco? An interesting perspective on regulation, in, once again (sorry), Technology Review.