Everyone Agrees That Contact Tracing Apps Are Key To Bringing COVID-19 Under Control; Iceland Has Tried Them, And Isn't So Sure
from the solution-or-solutionism? dept
Given the massive impact that the coronavirus is having on life and the economy around the world, it’s no wonder that governments are desperately searching for ways to bring the disease under control. One popular option is to use Bluetooth-based contact tracing apps on smartphones to find out who might be at risk from people nearby who are already infected. Dozens of countries are taking this route. Such is the evident utility of this approach, that even rivals like Apple and Google are willing to work together on a contact tracing app framework to help the battle against the disease. Although it’s great to see all this public-spirited activity in the tech world, there’s a slight problem with this approach: nobody knows whether it will actually help.
That makes the early experience of Iceland in using contact tracing apps invaluable. An article in the MIT Technology Review notes that Iceland released its Rakning C-19 app in early April, and persuaded 38% of Iceland’s population of 364,000 population to download it. Here’s what this nation found in its pioneering use of a tracing app:
despite this early deployment and widespread use, one senior figure in the country’s covid-19 response says the real impact of Rakning C-19 has been small, compared with manual tracing techniques like phone calls.
“The technology is more or less ? I wouldn?t say useless,” says Gestur Pàlmason, a detective inspector with the Icelandic Police Service who is overseeing contact tracing efforts. “But it’s the integration of the two that gives you results. I would say it [Rakning] has proven useful in a few cases, but it wasn?t a game changer for us.”
It’s only one data point, of course, but it’s an important one. Iceland was not only early in tackling the coronavirus, it has done so with great success. And yet it seems that the contact tracing app played a relatively small part in that. Manual tracing techniques, by contrast, were absolutely key.
That’s not to say other countries may not have more success with their apps. It’s interesting to note, for example, that Iceland’s Rakning C-19 tracks users’ GPS data in order to establish where they have been, and who they met with. It’s generally agreed that GPS information is too coarse for this, and that a Bluetooth approach should, in theory, provide better insights. It will be interesting to hear how apps based on Bluetooth interactions work in practice. Maybe they will provide the hoped-for means to bring the COVID-19 virus under control. Let’s hope so, and that the eager embrace by governments of contact tracing apps is not just another example of “solutionism” — the idea that any problem can be solved simply by throwing technology at it.