Covid-19 contact-tracing apps under review – The Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast

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In this week’s episode of the Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast, Caroline Donnelly and Brian McKenna are joined by networking editor Joe O’Halloran to discuss the government’s Covid-19 contact-tracing app. They also discuss the design of software for older people

In this week’s episode of the Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast, Caroline Donnelly and Brian McKenna are joined by Joe O’Halloran, CW’s networking editor, to discuss the government’s Covid-19 contact-tracing app. They also touch on designing software for people who came of age before the PC revolution of the 1980s and the advent of the web in the 1990s.

Recorded on Friday 15 May, just before the first weekend of the partial relaxation of the lockdown in England, the podcast found Joe anticipating a flood of kiteboarders to the Sussex coast. Brian and Caroline also shared their plans for the weekend – remotely celebrating a family birthday in the case of the former, and intrepidly investigating a disused garden well in the case of the latter.

Joe has been covering the course of the government’s Covid-19 app assiduously. He takes listeners through what the app is, how it has been made, its adventures on the Isle of Wight, and its results and prospects so far.

During the discussion, Caroline highlights the existence of two different schools of thought emerging on the best way to proceed with developing the app – centralised or decentralised?

Joe says there is a chasm of understanding between the scientific and technical communities who have developed the app, or who are cognizant of it, and the general public. And the mainstream media has not helped with its reporting, which tends to present the app as a standalone thing, abstracted from testing or manual tracing by humans, which it is not.

It is an app, delivered to Apple and Android smartphones, that enables users to enter possible Covid symptoms, get advice, and (on the centralised model) upload their information, including part of their postcode, to a government database accessible by the NHS. The app also enables users to be informed about proximity they have had to anyone who is Covid-19 positive, and it delivers advice about isolation steps to take: track, trace, isolate is what the app is about.

Joe touches on the South Korean and Singaporean approaches to track and trace, and, therefore, suppression of the virus. But success there, he says, has depended, crucially, on testing.

The UK app is being tested on the Isle of Wight, and Joe characterises this as a beta test which should be afforded some latitude by technology media commentators, who tend to be over-critical.

There seems to be a second app in play, which, says Joe, commentators are assuming uses a decentralised model. He personally takes the view that there will be a second test, following the beta on the Isle of Wight, and that the right timeframe for thinking about any widescale app deployment is late autumn/early winter, in time for a possible second peak.

Caroline notes that vagueness in respect of a possible second app seems to run counter to the need to combat what is a public health emergency with some urgency. But also, that it can’t be rushed, because it needs to be right.

Joe mentions a point made by NHSX that even 20% uptake of the app will – on a centralised model, at least – be useful as the data from that can be analysed. Jonathan Van-Tam, deputy chief medical officer for England, is also very supportive of the centralised approach, noting that the anonymised dataset it can generate could be subjected to artificial intelligence techniques and machine learning to gain knowledge about the virus and its spread.

Those who have questioned a centralised approach have been wary of the data privacy issues it raises, especially with a view to possible future use of the data, with mission creep.

“It’s a genuine matter of debate,” says Joe.

There is also the oddness of the global nature of the crisis versus the nationalised approaches currently being taken, notes Caroline. Joe recommends a look at the Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing protocol for some European context in respect of possible leveraging of APIs from Apple and Google.

Here is some of Computer Weekly’s coverage:

One of the things that’s been said about the app is that older people, without smartphones, will be excluded.

Discussion on the podcast then moves on to a CW article on the topic of designing software for older people by Steven Mathieson, Designing software to include older people in the digital world.

Steven’s feature includes some arresting statistics that illustrate just how many over-65s do not use the internet (even though Steve Jobs would have been 65 this year, and Bill Gates will be, so not all older people are innocent of technology). It also has tips for developing software to be more inclusive of older people, without patronising them – as with making mobile phones with big buttons. Designing technology to take account of diminishing faculties, such as sight and hearing (which declines from 30 onwards), also has benefits for everyone.

Caroline, finally, notes that the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the exclusionary nature of some of the technology that younger in-work generations are more used to, and which have been so crucial in keeping people connected through the crisis.

There is a renewed imperative for greater usability of videoconferencing technology revealed by the current crisis, concludes Joe. “That will benefit everybody.”

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Podcast music courtesy of Joseph McDade

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