Digital Global Health researchers take a deep dive into contact tracing apps

person holding a smartphone
A person holds a smartphone

Digital Contact Tracing (D-CT) apps are digital interventions that allow governments and epidemiologists to track and trace the spread of COVID-19. While D-CT apps represent a promising pandemic response tool, they are not without controversy. Little research has been done regarding the relationship between user-engagement and the efficacy and impact of these applications.

To respond to this research deficit, the Digital Global Health & Humanitarianism (DGHH) Lab conducted an international study. Led by York University researchers Jennie Phillips in collaboration with Aaida Mamuji and the DGHH Lab interdisciplinary research team, the research examines user-engagement, specifically user-uptake (people downloading the app) of D-CT mobile apps. This research aims to help fill the knowledge gap by addressing questions such as:

  • Why is there higher user-uptake of D-CT apps in some countries over others?
  • How does uptake vary across contexts?
  • What factors influence uptake across contexts?
  • How does risk-benefit perception influence uptake?
  • How can we improve the design & implementation of D-CT apps to enhance user engagement while minimizing risk?

Drawing on case studies of Iceland, Cyprus, Ireland, Scotland and South Africa as well as workshops, interviews, literature reviews and critical analysis, the DGHH Lab’s research reveals that eight individual, community and system-level factors influence the uptake of D-CT applications. These factors are perceptions of data collection and management, sense of community, communications and misinformation, accessibility and inclusion, trust in public/private institutions, policy and governance, response infrastructure, and digital capability.

“Using a systems approach to conduct our analysis, this research creates new insights on D-CT app usage by situating app users in their context to better understand their motivations, constraints, and fears,” says Phillips, who is the director of the DGHH Lab.

Results also reveal that across case studies and the broader literature, D-CT application uptake has been hindered by five critical challenges:

  • fears of immediate and future surveillance,
  • privacy perceptions may override privacy-by-design principles,
  • some communities are disproportionately affected by and/or excluded from D-CT applications/measures,
  • perceptions of D-CT app effectiveness are poor, and
  • digital limitations inhibit people from downloading D-CT apps.

The DGHH Lab’s research also highlights the human rights implications of D-CT apps. “The intricacies of contact tracing applications must be analyzed from a human rights perspective, one which holistically interrogates different contexts and risks that people face, particularly marginalized communities who are already at a higher risk of COVID-19,” says Petra Molnar, the project’s legal expert.

Over the past month, the DGHH Lab has published Modules One through eight of a new  practitioner guide titled Exploring User-Uptake of Digital Contact Tracing Apps. The ninth and final research module, Recommendations & Future Research module, which will be released March 22, distills the findings into 23 practical, real-world solutions that can be employed by practitioners – including implementers, developers and regulators both at home and abroad.

“It is hoped that our findings can help enhance the efficacy of D-CT apps by prioritizing the needs and wants of the individuals expected to use these apps,” said Phillips.

To learn more, visit the DGHH Lab website.