NZ Contact Tracer app (Photo: The Conversation, CC BY-ND)

‘Download the app, then use it’ leaves too many of us out of contact tracing efforts

Focusing only on tech solutions to New Zealand’s contact tracing challenges ignores the needs of the fifth of the population who are digitally excluded, write Anna and Kelly Pendergrast.

This month’s outbreak of Covid-19 after more than 100 days without any recorded community spread has suddenly focused attention on the need for effective contact tracing. Health authorities need to know who people with Covid-19 have been in contact with, and so identify those who have been exposed to the virus.

Since the country moved down to level two in mid-May and resumed many normal activities, New Zealanders have been encouraged to keep a record of where we go and who we meet, to make contact tracing easier. The government has largely focused on promoting the NZ Covid Tracer app as the key way for people to record their movements. If you explore covid19.govt.nz, you’ll find information about other methods like paper-based record keeping, and information about what details to record. However, the dominant narrative from both government and media is to use the app to check in at places you visit.

This app-first approach is understandable. Digital technologies can enable tasks to be carried out at a scale and speed not possible by humans alone. However, by pushing the app as the tool to use, the significant number of people in New Zealand who are not digitally included are left out. The government defines a digitally included person, whānau or community as having convenient, reliable access to affordable, accessible digital devices and an internet connection, and being able to confidently use them in their day-to-day life. We can further break that down into four elements that are all needed for digital inclusion: motivation, access, skills and trust. The Department of Internal Affairs estimates that more than one in five people in New Zealand are lacking at least one of these elements.

Lack of access to a smartphone contributes to the digital inequality that can limit the uptake of contact tracing apps (Image: Toby Morris).

When it comes to getting people to use the NZ Covid Tracer app, it is not just enough for someone to have a compatible smartphone. They also need to be motivated to use the app, which is something that has been seriously lacking, especially prior to the immediate threat posed by the most recent resurgence. People also need the skills to download and use the app and to trust that their data is safe. There have also been accessibility concerns about the app, which means that people with disabilities may be excluded.

So, what happens if more than a fifth of the population cannot participate in the solution that is being most widely promoted to help with contact tracing? First, there is a risk of significant data gaps, slowing down the process should contact tracing need to be scaled up significantly due to an extended resurgence of Covid-19. There is also the risk of further excluding already marginalised people by leaving them out of the conversation and the chance to play their part in the team of five million. Finally, if we do end up moving towards Bluetooth-enabled solutions for identifying close contacts, whether through an app, card or other method, uptake might not be able to be high enough for the solution to be effective.

What is the solution? We think a more effective approach is for public communication to lead with why it is so important to track your movements, and then explain how to do it from there. If we know why it is important to change our behaviour, we are more likely to do it. An early, sustained push on the value of tracking movements could have helped with uptake rates of the app (and perhaps manual methods) earlier on, ensuring the information needed was available in the case of a resurgence.

Not enough people realise that pen and paper is an acceptable alternative to the Covid Tracer app (Photo: Getty Images)

Across the board, and especially when dealing with important national conversations, we think it is important to bring people together around solving a specific problem — in this case the need to ensure contact tracing is possible on a broad scale — rather than focusing narrowly on a specific technological solution. Tech-first or app-first approaches are known as “techno-solutionism,” and this way of thinking often leaves out consideration of social impacts and equity issues. Not to mention the fact that it can be really alienating for people that do not have access to the technology.

There are three things we would like to see focused on now to ensure that people who are not digitally included are also encouraged to keep track of their movements. These will also help ensure that people continue to be motivated to use the app or other methods if and when the current immediate threat of new cases dissipates.

  1. Continue to communicate that everyone in New Zealand should track their movements and who they have been in contact with, and why this is important. Start with this messaging before talking about the NZ Covid Tracer app or other methods of keeping track.
  2. Clearly communicate about the methods people can use to track their movements if they cannot use the app. This includes alternative QR-scanning apps that may work on older phones, or the use of a paper diary.
  3. Be clear on what information to keep a track of, and provide templates to help people do this so they know that they are collecting the right information.

When there is an issue that needs to be solved — especially when it is really important and time-sensitive like the need for contact tracing — experts, decision makers and communicators need to lead with the problem and figure out a range of effective solutions that include everyone. They also need to make sure that a wide range of voices are heard in the developments of solutions. Proposed tech fixes like a Bluetooth-enabled Covid card aim to address the issue of access, but don’t look at the wider issues of skills, trust and motivation needed in order to enable digital inclusion.

In the long run, helping more people become digitally included is an important part of ensuring an equitable future for Aotearoa. But digital inclusion alone will not fix all our problems. If we tell a story about Covid-19 and contact tracing that only focuses on the tech, we risk missing the “why”, and even more importantly, we risk marginalising people who are already left out of so many systems and decisions.

Kelly and Anna Pendergrast are partners at Antistatic, a research and communications group that investigates and translates complex issues around technology, the environment and social good. Kelly and Anna wrote a chapter about digital inclusion in the book Shouting Zeroes and Ones: Digital Technology, Ethics and Policy in New Zealand, edited by Andrew Chen and published by Bridget Williams Books. 




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