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Contact tracing: The technology worked, but the implementation failed

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Sometimes, getting the technology right is not even half the battle. Here’s the story of one “successful failure.”

cubes with person symbols and lines symbolizing contact tracing

Image: iStock/http://www.fotogestoeber.de

At TechRepublic, we’ve published lots of articles about the technology of contract tracing and the apps that could make it simple. The idea was straightforward and imminently logical: if someone caught the virus and you could quickly identify anyone who had come into contact with that person, you could stop or slow the virus by requesting or enforcing a quarantine on those exposed individuals.

SEE: COVID-19 workplace policy (TechRepublic Premium)

That notion might seem misguided with the benefit of hindsight, much like the now-quaint “two weeks to flatten the curve” rings a bit hollow nearly a year later. Still, contact tracing proved successful in slowing or stopping the pandemic in several countries. In these early days, it became obvious that manually identifying and informing an individual’s network of contacts, especially as many of the first people to become infected traveled and interacted with large networks of people, was a tough challenge.

Like many technologists, I immediately thought that this seemed like the perfect problem to solve with technology, and I remember feeling relief when Apple and Google announced a partnership to use the ubiquitous “computer in everyone’s pocket” to facilitate contact tracing and exposure notification. The technology seemed elegant and effective: in essence, your phone would broadcast a unique ID over Bluetooth, and record the IDs of any other phones it encountered. If I reported a positive COVID test result, theoretically my phone’s ID would be shared to this network. Anyone that I’d contacted could be quickly and easily informed without relying on frail human memory and a drawn-out interview, research and manual contact process.

Technology or humans?

Much was made of the rare truce between competitors Apple and Google, who set aside their differences to build the contact tracing technology into their respective mobile operating systems, ensuring that most of the smartphone-owning world would have the tech available. After many grand announcements detailing the collaboration and breakneck pace of technology development, the technology was released with a key assumption: that local health authorities would implement apps that activated the functionality and managed notifications to people that had been exposed.

SEE: Big data’s role in COVID-19 (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

In the U.S., less than half of the states use the Exposure Notification API, a fact that’s troubling for someone like me who lives a couple miles from a state line, or the poor souls in Rhode Island, never more than a couple dozen miles from neighbors Massachusetts or Connecticut. Expecting stretched state governments, many of whom have precisely zero in-house app development capability, to drop everything to develop mobile apps and backend technology that uses the Expose Notification API was just as misguided as expecting a virus to respect arbitrary lines drawn on a map.

It may seem like Monday-morning quarterbacking or making light of the complex decisions around privacy, data ownership and political nuances. However, the organizational constraints imposed by state and national governments on a virus that knows nothing of borders should have been an obvious impediment that would need to be overcome for the technology to deliver any measurable benefit. This was a core problem to any contact tracing regime, deserving more critical attention than the technical details of an API or the nuances of two large companies collaborating.

SEE: If you’re not launching a new business, you should be (TechRepublic)

Perhaps Apple and Google saw this fact early, choosing to get a good enough technology out to the public and force the hands of governments that may have been unwilling or unable to collaborate. While this strategy may have been sound, they missed the opportunity to get the public on their sides and force the hands of recalcitrant political entities. Had Apple and Google provided an easy-to-use app that worked globally, or at least nationally, and a convincing appeal that this provided a compelling individual benefit, adoption might have grown quickly enough to reach a tipping point that dragged governments into the mix whether they liked it or not.

Tracing the lessons

From one perspective, the Exposure Notification API was a rousing success. Two longtime competitors buried the hatchet, deployed a complex and novel technology in record time, and flawlessly deployed the tech across the globe with no significant reports of bugs or disruptions.

However, in the U.S., the technology that was going to make a significant and meaningful impact on combatting COVID-19 did next to nothing by most accounts, a technical success that failed to deliver its intended outcome.

SEE: How to apply “platform thinking” to your tech strategy for greater success (TechRepublic)

The organizational challenge of getting disparate and disconnected political entities to participate in a problem that paid no respect to the lines on a map or any other human-created organizing construct was kicked down the road. This is a problem that’s far from unique. Anyone who’s implemented a project of any size understands the difficulties of navigating the corporate organizational chart and internal politics, let alone uncooperative or downright unfriendly governments.

It can be tempting to ignore these problems and focus on technology. There’s comfort to be had in solving the challenging, yet often solvable, technical problems and leaving the human issues alone in the hopes that someone else will rectify them. However, this is hope rather than strategy, and just might set you up for a technical success that’s ultimately an expensive and time-consuming failure.

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This post was written by and was first posted to TechRepublic



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