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5 Reasons Why Apps Won’t Be Our Tech Savior for Contact Tracing

By Lisa Carrel on April, 27 2020

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Lisa Carrel

Lisa is CEO and Co-Founder of Proxfinity, a Chicago based wearable event technology startup. Her company uses hardware and software to deliver social hardware, for business. She is a female founder in manufacturing focused on fundamentally changing the way humans use technology to connect.

As the world continues to search for ways to slow the spread of COVID-19 cases, the events and hospitality industry is searching for a way to resume face to face events and tradeshows in the new normal. One of the solutions proposed relies on contact tracing, a method of identifying who an infected person may have been in contact with. It's yet another unprecedented milestone that event organizers are facing in this unpredictable journey back to business.

Contact tracing has traditionally been done manually by health workers, but this process is slow, cumbersome, and relies entirely on a patient’s memory for accuracy. In an effort to make this process easier and more reliable, people are turning to technology, namely app-based solutions. For example, Apple & Google have partnered to create an app that will log user interactions as they get close to other smartphones in an effort to record disease transmissions.

Event organizers can see some similarities from the past. When exhibitors asked for solutions to better track ROI and connections with attendees, event technology companies came up with apps that tracked engagement and intent. No doubt more than a few event app company product-roadmaps is the option for contact tracing waiting in the backlog.

However, our research is showing us that app-based solutions present a number of vulnerabilities. Which is why at Proxfinity, we're trying to share our understanding of how technology can shape and improve human interaction like we've been doing for years with our smart matching technology with event organizers to help them ask the right questions as they source solutions for upcoming meetings, conferences, and tradeshows.  

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Here are five challenges we uncovered indicating apps may not be the answer: 

Challenge #1 - Opt-In Only

Even the most sophisticated digital tracing app won’t be useful if smartphone users don’t download it. Contact tracing app solutions are voluntary, and completely dependent on individuals opting-in and participating, not to mention having their phones Bluetooth-enabled.

Historically, participation hasn’t been enough to make a difference. In 2011, Cambridge developed a flu app that had a dismal 1% adoption rate. Most recently, Singapore deployed a contact tracer app in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Their app adoption rate? A disheartening 12%. Simply put, if people aren’t using these apps, they fail to make a difference.

Event apps across the board typically see around an average 48.5% opt-in rate. Higher adoption than an app aimed at only tracking a disease is great news...however, it is less great when you realize more than half of your participants would be unknowns.

Challenge #2 - Privacy Concerns

Contact tracing apps also raise a myriad of security concerns. Skeptics fear that Apple and Google will store and leverage users’ personal data, location tracking and medical information. There is a particularly high level of sensitivity around health information already, and people will be reluctant to share it outside of the privacy of their doctor’s office - especially if it’s available on platforms vulnerable to security breaches.

The US government at the federal level isn’t sold either, as legislators argue this could also give tech giants even more powerful commercial insights. Outside of physical safety, information safety is also paramount - but can apps really guarantee it? It doesn’t appear so.

Globally, there is little consensus and varying opinions. However, there is already a spotlight around privacy and ensuring explicit use of data through GDPR. We can only imagine a similarly narrow approach would taken when vetting potential contact tracing solutions.

Privacy Concept. Blue Button with Padlock Icon on Modern Computer Keyboard. 3D Render.

Challenge #3 - Not An All-Inclusive Solution

Contact tracing apps are not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution.

Why? They exclude numerous members of society. These apps could create a ‘digital divide’ between disadvantaged groups including seniors and lower-income earners who have less sophisticated phones, or no mobile device at all. This means an app-based solution could exclude close to 2 billion people globally.

This means an app-based solution could exclude close to 2 billion people globally.

Another misfire? While these apps are attempting to address society-at-large, they don’t offer businesses an enterprise-level option. Businesses, especially essential businesses now, need reliable tech they can deploy and manage directly to make proactive and practical decisions to protect their employees and their livelihood.

Events of certain sizes will face these similar concerns. 

Challenge #4 - Signal Complications

WiFi and Bluetooth have inherent limitations, meaning they won’t work everywhere, all of the time, and could also pick-up a number of false readings.

Firstly, apps depend on signal strength, and there are a number of places where a signal won’t be an option. What if you’re in a hard to reach location, underground, or high on a mountain top out of range? Or, more commonly, in an older venue that has blackout spots because the infrastructure isn't up to date? An app isn’t a reliable option.

In addition, relying on a signal alone invites a huge margin of error. Let’s say two people are less than six feet apart, but through a ground-floor window as one person passes by on a sidewalk. An app could register that as a positive interaction when in fact there was a barrier in between them.

Signals - via WiFi or Bluetooth - aren’t reliable related to inaccuracy or frequency.

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Challenge #5 - Not Available Yet

The biggest challenge with app-based solutions? They aren’t available NOW. They are still weeks, and for event organizers, likely months away from being a viable option.

Non-silver lining: many experts question if these projects will fail before they even get off the ground.

Could Smart Badges be the Answer?

Is there a better solution that businesses can implement today? We think so, but we need your help in validating our option. Proxfinity has adjusted our tech so that our smart badges could offer an immediate and reliable alternative. Our smart badge, ResCUE, can help businesses and organizers track and manage attendee interactions so they can identify potentially at-risk participants if someone is exposed to, or tests positive for, COVID-19.

The best news? Attendees simply put it on and their work is done. No downloads, no reliance on signal strength, it’s a simple, yet powerful, wearable badge designed to monitor the distance between employees and time spent near one another.

Today, the stakes for safety have never been higher. ResCUE puts preventative power into the hands of businesses and event organizers so they can respond to health threats in real-time, right now. If you're interested in learning more, let's set up a time to talk

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