Digital contact tracing for COVID-19

03 Jun, 2020
3D Rendering of coronavirus

Digital contact tracing solutions for COVID-19 must offer exceptional speed and achieve high take-up rates to be useful.

These are the findings of the working paper Digital Contact Tracing for COVID-19: A Primer for Policymakers, released by the Centre for Social Data Analytics, based at the Auckland University of Technology, and the Institute for Social Science Research at The University of Queensland.

Australasian researchers, including CSDA director Professor Rhema Vaithianathan and deputy director Dr Nina Anchugina, use a simple graphical model of infection transmissions to illustrate why COVID-19 is particularly challenging to manage with traditional manual contact tracing.

The researchers demonstrate how the epidemiological features of COVID-19 mean that, even before a patient becomes symptomatic, their contacts may have already infected a significant number of people.

The authors come down firmly on the side of contact tracing solutions that offer instantaneous notifications, with the opportunity for follow up by public health officers to ensure isolation has occurred.

Assuming that an instantaneous solution is adopted, the researchers explain how policymakers can identify the minimum take-up rate for the solution to be useful.

They find that uptake of digital solutions only starts adding significant value, by taking work off manual contact tracers, at take-up levels above 60 per cent.

Given the need for high uptake, the researchers find that building and maintaining social licence for the use of digital tools is critical. Governments need to demonstrate that the value to the user is high and that privacy and security risks are low.

Because users have limited ability to judge the value of contact tracing tools, high trust is needed to achieve high take-up levels.

The authors suggest that governments committing to an impact evaluation that will allow citizens to judge the impact of a tool will increase trust as well as take-up.

“We hope this working paper offers useful information and guidance for policymakers who are required to make high stakes decisions about digital contact tracing options both in the context of COVID-19 and beyond,”  Vaithianathan says.

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