I swear that at some point I will stop writing about COVID-19, but in the meantime it continues to affect my life. I spent the past week holed up in a hotel room in Puerto Rico while caring for my teenage son, who contracted COVID on a field trip. And since this is my second forced quarantine while traveling, I’ve once again been forced to wonder why I’m stuck in another hotel as part of a quarantine.
In the US, COVID is clearly continuing to spread through the population. But while on the one hand we are being told to self-quarantine, on the other hand we are also being allowed to get on planes and travel within the country without having to get tested or wear masks. That said, my focus here is not on our inconsistent (and sometimes incomprehensible) COVID-related travel requirements, but on our exposure notification programs, because that’s where my personal drama connects with my professional interests.
A few weeks ago, I had Bianca Wylie on the podcast to talk about Canada’s COVID Exposure Notification App. Like her he pointedbecause it required a specific type of government testing and certification that was no longer easy to obtain, it was effectively useless for most people.
That meant incidental or even close contacts could never know they had been exposed. Despite this fact, millions of Canadians were diligently sharing their locations via Bluetooth in the belief that they were helping to stop the spread of COVID. And since this infrastructure was not working, Wylie wanted the Canadian government to shut it down.
The situation in Canada was top of mind for me as I tried to report my own positive COVID status last month after contracting it at a conference. My Washington Notify app made it easy enough to share results, though after I got home, I received a notification that 10 days earlier I had been in close contact with another COVID-positive person.
In my case, reporting my positive COVID status required me to simply click on the app and get a code after clicking on the date I tested positive and the date I first had symptoms. But other states don’t make it so easy. And since I was in Texas when I got sick, and my app is specific to Washington state residents, anyone who was actually close to me when I got sick didn’t get a notification. Washington state will actually share exposure notification status with other states that participate in the exposure notification program, but Texas is one of 29 states that participate in the program.
Then when I got my own notification 10 days after being exposed, even if I hadn’t had COVID yet, it was definitely too late to isolate myself or wear a mask to prevent spreading it.
In other words, the difficulty in getting information to a central entity that can share it, combined with delays in reporting and sharing, means that some of these reporting programs were implemented early in the pandemic are not very effective. Add to that the fact that not everyone has downloaded one of these apps and the fragmented nature of having them rolled out at the state level.
However, these applications have been a perfect microcosm of how we expected technology (I would call it IoT technology) to help us manage a huge threat, but it failed at the execution level. In fact, when we consider how sensing, computing, and connectivity can help us see and understand the world in real time, we tend to forget the very real issues associated with deploying that infrastructure. We also tend to forget that we need to have processes in place to ensure that the technology does what it is supposed to do.
Let’s start with the deployment. When it comes to exposure notifications, there are several implementation challenges involved. The technology itself, including the use of phones and Bluetooth, is technically sound. A lot of effort went into designing something that was easy for people to implement (by simply downloading an app) while also ensuring their privacy. At the time of the release of the exposure notification app, we also had professional tests that could inform the apps and certify the results.
But for users, the lack of widespread adoption hampered the programs’ effectiveness, as did the fragmented nature of each app. If you traveled or lived near a state border, your app may not have communicated with apps belonging to everyone you encountered. Meanwhile, on the testing side, as those resources dried up and self-testing became the norm, the reporting mechanism of all states was not adapted, which meant many diseases went unreported and unreported. they will inform
Which brings us to another topic. We have no mechanism to track how well these services are performing and it is unclear how we will decide to remove these applications as infrastructure. Wylie’s frustration is that in Canada the apps were part of a government effort and that the government has a responsibility to monitor and formally end any program it starts. In the United States the situation is more murky. Each participating state oversees its own enforcement, if it has one.
But figuring out how each state rates the success of the exposure notification program isn’t easy. In fact, the US Government Accountability Office conducted a study in September 2021 to understand the challenges of today’s exposure notification apps and list several of the issues I’m having. However, despite noting that there was currently no way to measure the effectiveness of the applications, it did not recommend that states track their success or plan an end date.
My biggest frustration is that these programs have been touted as important elements in stopping the spread of COVID, but they are not very effective. And there is no easy place to turn to change them so they can become more effective or end gracefully. Instead, I worry that they will continue to live as digital waste until apps stop running on phones or people remove them.
Instead of letting exposure notification apps sit around, we need to identify where they failed, if we can improve them, and then decide whether the programs that govern those apps should be formally terminated. We have such a propensity to move forward in the tech sector, but with IoT and especially government involvement in IoT, we need to change our habits.
Leaving programs like this in purgatory opens up security vulnerabilities. It can also lead to data leaks. And in the absence of any self-reflection or evaluation, it doesn’t help us build technology that works.
When I think about the trail of abandoned web-based accounts I left behind during my 25 years of living online, and project it for real-world IoT, I am concerned about our inability to gracefully assess and conclude technology programs in a timely manner. formal. It is an inability that will come to haunt us.