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People make the difference

Soraya Jansen

Views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and do not represent the views of the Support Centre for Data Sharing or the European Commission.

In April 2020, the New York Times published an article about the importance of people in providing technological solutions during this pandemic.[1] The author states that technology will not save us, but that people will. In a world dominated by big tech, it would have been expected that new tech consumer (e.g. home health and consumer devices) and business products (e.g. smart healthcare) focused on personalisation and analytics could seamlessly determine whether someone is infected with COVID-19. However, people call COVID-19 response teams in great numbers to determine whether they might have symptoms of the virus. Also contact tracing has mainly been executed by people in the beginning of the pandemic.

I also believe that people make the difference and that technology has proven to be a valuable instrument because of the adequate handling by employees of big tech companies. I will support this argument with examples of the important role of people in contact tracing and the development of contact tracing applications with ethical usage of APIs (Application Programming Interfaces).


The role of people in contact tracing

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), contact tracing breaks the chains of transmission of COVID-19 and is thus an essential public health tool for controlling infectious disease outbreaks.[2] In the beginning of the pandemic, public health departments across Europe have actively started contact tracing, not with the help of technology but with manpower. As the virus continued to spread it became clear that it was impossible to trace all contacts because contacts were difficult to track down and the numbers of infected people became too high. So tech companies across Europe stepped in with the development of various contact tracing applications to automate this process. However, many applications did not pass the strict data privacy and security standards and prove to be flawed and vulnerable for data leaks.[3] After a lengthy process, Apple and Google developed a Bluetooth technology that establishes a voluntary contact tracing network, keeping extensive data on phones that have been in proximity with each other.[4] Apple and Google have already introduced the first version of a Contact Tracing API[5] to health authorities for the development of a contact tracing application. Most European countries have used this Contact Tracing API for the development of their national applications.

The tech employees of Google and Apple played the most imported role in developing this Contact Tracing API. The tech employees determined that there would be strict ethical standards for developers for the use of their Contact Tracing API, namely the following:[6]

  • The API must be used by an official government public health authority and can only be used for the purpose of responding to COVID-19.
  • The developers need to ask consent of a user to employ the API before it can be used.
  • The developers need to require a user’s consent to share a positive test result before broadcasting any such info with the public health authority operating the app.
  • The applications should only gather the minimum amount of info necessary for the purposes of exposure notification and should use that only for the sake of COVID-19 response. In other words, these apps are forbidden from using user information for advertising.

These requirements show that the human side of using technological solutions in an ethical and responsible way make the real difference.[7]


Ethical and human standards for using technological solutions

People need to trust and download contact tracing applications knowing that their data privacy is not violated for the application to be effective. Researchers differ in opinion on the exact percentage but have established that contact tracing applications will be most effective when approximately 50 to 60 percent of the population is willing to download it.[8] Therefore, in my opinion, contact tracing applications will be more effective when the human side is considered in the development.

Overall, I expect the role of technological solutions in contact tracing to increase over the course of the pandemic as governments and businesses are now shifting their focus to increase long-term capacity to adjust to the new reality. The process of contact tracing will become more automated with Machine Learning (ML) and will improve with the use of AI through increased data sharing between governments and health authorities on all levels (municipality, regional, national). Technological solutions are necessary to make contact tracing more (cost) efficient and to start the prevention and preparation for possible future pandemics. At all times, the role of people will remain critical to determine ethical standards for the sharing of data and use of technological solutions in contact tracing and fighting the spread of the virus. Keeping in mind these ethical standards, technological solutions and data sharing will increase over the course of the pandemic and will help to curb the spread of COVID-19 and save human lives.