Greater public involvement in the development and implementation of policy and technologies is key to better uptake of COVID tracing apps, according to a new study published in JMIR mHealth & uHealth led by Professor Kerina Jones, Associate Director for Information Governance and Public Engagement (IG&PE) and Professor of Population Data Science at Swansea University.
Contact tracing smartphone apps are among a raft of measures introduced by Governments to reduce the spread of the virus, but their uptake depends on public choice. This anonymous mixed-methods study, carried out in May 2020, explored the views of 976 people living in Wales on their intended use of a COVID-19 contact tracing smartphone app.
- Smartphone usage was 91.5% overall.
- Use varied among age groups, with usage dropping from 95% in the age groups up to 55 years to only 40% among those age 85 years.
- 97.1% were aware of contact tracing apps, but only 67.2% felt sufficiently informed.
- 55.7% intended to use an app, 23.3% said they wouldn’t, and 21.0% were unsure.
The top reasons for app use:
- Controlling the spread of the virus,
- Mitigating risks for others and oneself,
- Increasing freedoms.
The top reasons against app use:
- Mistrusting the government,
- Concerns about data security and privacy,
- Doubts about efficacy.
Responses also showed resistance for changing one’s mind about app use, whether from willing to unwilling or vice versa. However, although this was stated as an intention, there is subsequent evidence that significant numbers who downloaded the app are deactivating or deleting it, i.e. people are changing their minds from willing to unwilling to use the app.
Recommendations to promote app effectiveness and build public trust
- There should be more engagement with the public to gain viewpoints, listen to concerns, and provide more information. This would also benefit decision-makers in developing transparent policy plans with social license.
- There is an issue with digital inclusion among some groups, such as older people, being less likely to use a smartphone. In some cases, it is the lack of a smartphone or stable network connection. However, for others, it is a lack of knowledge on app use – which an education programme could address detailed information and a step-by-step guide to download and use the app.
- The reasons people gave for their unwillingness to use an app were topped by mistrust in the government, followed by concerns about data security and privacy and its efficacy. Policy and decision-makers must address these issues and demonstrate trustworthiness if members of the public are to be confident their data are safe and that using an app is worthwhile.
Kerina Jones, Professor Kerina Jones, Professor of Population Data Science and Associate Director for Information Governance and Public Engagement (IG&PE), who led the study, said: :
“Since majority uptake is needed to achieve maximum effectiveness, it is crucial to gauge and understand citizens’ views on the acceptability of contact tracing apps for smartphones.
Our study revealed issues around digital inclusion, public mistrust of the government, concerns about data security and privacy, and doubts about efficacy. To address this, policy and decision-makers need not only increase public involvement but also do more to act openly, improve communication, and demonstrate trustworthiness if members of the public are confident in using an app.
Let’s face it, COVID-19 hasn’t gone away.”