Adding Covid-19 Exposure Apps to Popular Social Media Apps

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TThe start of the end of the Covid-19 pandemic could be near in the United States with the approval and ongoing deployment of vaccines developed by Pfizer / BioNTech and Moderna. Yet it will be months – at least – before this vaccine or others are available to everyone.

For now, the pandemic continues to rage uncontrollably, making wearing masks, social distancing and contact tracing the best tools most people have to keep it at bay just yet.

In terms of contact tracing, the ubiquity and essential nature of mobile phones offer great potential for using digital tools. Until now, 18 states and Washington, DC, have deployed Covid-19 exposure notification applications. These use an application programming interface (API) jointly developed by Apple and Google that uses Bluetooth to make the phones “talk” to each other. Users diagnosed as positive can use an anonymous code to report their status through the app. After that, a notification is sent to other phones running the app that were within 6 feet of that phone for 15 minutes or more in the previous two weeks.

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These apps look like great tools. But there is one problem: people don’t use them.

For app-based exposure notifications to stop the pandemic, 60% or more of smartphone users need to run them, although progress can still be made with lower absorption levels. In the United States, we are a long way from that.

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There have been pockets of relative success. About two-thirds of Washington, DC, residents downloaded its app, and adoption rates in Colorado soared to nearly 30% following the deployment of express exposure notifications, a basic preformatted version of Apple / Google compatible contact tracing applications that allows states to send push notifications encouraging residents to register. Yet the adoption rate in many states is well below 20%.

And there’s another problem: Just downloading the app doesn’t mean someone is running it.

Applications with particularly low usage rates will not be of much help and, in fact, are potentially dangerous. Apps that are little used may create a false sense of security among those who actually use them, as users may confuse the fact that they are not receiving notifications as evidence of low risk or prevalence when it really indicates little. others use the app.

The phrase “grow or die” is often used casually to cast a shadow over the cold, market-oriented behavior of big tech. But in the case of Covid-19 notification apps, it’s pretty literal: the widespread adoption of these apps can actually save lives.

Increasing adoption rates for these apps can be a matter of life and death, so reaching a critical mass of users is imperative. The easiest way to achieve widespread adoption would be to integrate these apps as micro-services within platforms that already have huge market share, like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat or even Citizen, which is more. localized by design.

Breach of privacy is often cited as a major obstacle to using exposure notification apps. But social media users are accustomed to sharing all kinds of information freely and easily, from their whereabouts to their research histories to their family trees. The harsh truth is that while a public health app can save lives, it isn’t entertaining enough to generate the user base it needs to be effective or to force potential users to forgo their privacy. for the privilege of using it. Even if these apps could overcome these hurdles, they don’t have the time to organically build their user bases to keep up with the increase in new cases of Covid-19.

One way to make these apps work as intended is to integrate them as optional add-ons to apps that have already captured large market share, already exist to connect people to each other, and which people are already used to. consent to share the data.

When creating the API for status notification apps, Apple and Google were aware of privacy concerns. There is no central authority monitoring the location or contact history of an individual user, just a database of anonymous – and often changing – numbers associated with a phone. Exposure notifications are based on the relative proximity of individuals’ phones to each other and users self-reporting their Covid-19 status. Hosting a Covid-19 notification service in a more popular app would not enjoy its convenience with the widely used app as they wouldn’t share anything with the notification app that they are not already in. easy to share with the application in which it is integrated.

It bears repeating that solving privacy concerns does not solve adoption problems. The success of exposure notification apps depends most directly on their connection to the vast existing social networks. This means that the executives of social media giants like Facebook must be willing to incorporate these features and be aggressive in promoting their use.

Ongoing discussion and litigation asked if tech giants like Facebook are monopolistic. Social media sites are criticized for their real influence and the way they use – or don’t use – that influence. Companies themselves like to remind the public that their intention has always been to be a force for good.

The integration of Covid-19 notification apps into their platforms is a chance to follow this talk.

If big tech really is a small group with inordinate influence over individual behavior, then it would win the goodwill of ordinary citizens and lawmakers if they used this power to “conspire” to elevate failing public health applications into tools. effective and widely used to save lives and help thwart a pandemic.

Ben Alsdurf is the chief health care practice in the United States at TLGG, a management consulting firm that advises global companies on digital strategy, business model innovation and organizational transformation.


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