What Ever Happened to Digital Contact Tracing?


Chas Kissick, Elliot Setzer, and Jacob Schulz at Lawfare: “In May of this year, Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged the United Kingdom would develop a “world beating” track and trace system by June 1 to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. But on June 18, the government quietly abandoned its coronavirus contact-tracing app, a key piece of the “world beating” strategy, and instead promised to switch to a model designed by Apple and Google. The delayed app will not be ready until winter, and the U.K.’s Junior Health Minister told reporters that “it isn’t a priority for us at the moment.” When Johnson came under fire in Parliament for the abrupt U-turn, he replied: “I wonder whether the right honorable and learned Gentleman can name a single country in the world that has a functional contact tracing app—there isn’t one.”

Johnson’s rebuttal is perhaps a bit reductive, but he’s not that far off.

You probably remember the idea of contact-tracing apps: the technological intervention that seemed to have the potential to save lives while enabling a hamstrung economy to safely inch back open; it was a fixation of many public health and privacy advocates; it was the thing that was going to help us get out of this mess if we could manage the risks.

Yet nearly three months after Google and Apple announced with great fanfare their partnership to build a contact-tracing API, contact-tracing apps have made an unceremonious exit from the front pages of American newspapers. Countries, states and localities continue to try to develop effective digital tracing strategies. But as Jonathan Zittrain puts it, the “bigger picture momentum appears to have waned.”

What’s behind contact-tracing apps’ departure from the spotlight? For one, there’s the onset of a larger pandemic apathy in the U.S; many politicians and Americans seem to have thrown up their hands or put all their hopes in the speedy development of a vaccine. Yet, the apps haven’t even made much of a splash in countries that havetaken the pandemic more seriously. Anxieties about privacy persist. But technical shortcomings in the apps deserve the lion’s share of the blame. Countries have struggled to get bespoke apps developed by government technicians to work on Apple phones. The functionality of some Bluetooth-enabled models vary widely depending on small changes in phone positioning. And most countries have only convinced a small fraction of their populace to use national tracing apps.

Maybe it’s still possible that contact-tracing apps will make a miraculous comeback and approach the level of efficacy observers once anticipated.

But even if technical issues implausibly subside, the apps are operating in a world of unknowns.

Most centrally, researchers still have no real idea what level of adoption is required for the apps to actually serve their function. Some estimates suggest that 80 percent of current smartphone owners in a given area would need to use an app and follow its recommendations for digital contact tracing to be effective. But other researchers have noted that the apps could slow the rate of infections even if little more than 10 percent of a population used a tracing app. It will be an uphill battle even to hit the 10 percent mark in America, though. Survey data show that fewer than three in 10 Americans intend to use contact-tracing apps if they become available…(More).

Citizen initiatives facing COVID-19: Due to spontaneous generation or the product of social capital in Mexico City?


UNDP: “Since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Mexico, multiple citizen responses[1] have emerged to tackle its impacts: digital aid platforms such as Frena la Curva (Stop the curve) and México Covid19;  groups of makers that design medical and protective equipment; Zapotec indigenous women that teach how to make hand sanitizer at home; public buses that turn into mobile markets; and much more.

There are initiatives that aid 10, 20, 3,000 or more people; initiatives that operate inside a housing unit, a municipality or across the City. Some responses have come from civil society organizations; others from collectives of practitioners or from groups of friends and family; there are even those made out of groups of strangers that the pandemic turned into partners working for the same goal….

Within the plurality of initiatives that have emerged, sometimes, seemingly in a spontaneous way, there is a common denominator: people are reacting in a collaboratively way to the crisis to solve the needs that the pandemic is leaving behind.

Different research studies connect social cohesion and social capital with the response’s capacity of a community in situations of crisis and natural disasters; and with its subsequent recovery. These concepts —derived from sociology— include aspects such as the level of union; relationships and networks; and interaction between people in a community.

This can be seen when, for example, a group of people in a neighborhood gets together to buy groceries for neighbors who have lost their incomes. Also, when a collective of professionals react to the shortages of protective equipment for health workers by creating low-cost prototypes, or when a civil organization collaborates with local authorities to bring water to households that lack access to clean water.

It would seem that a high rate of social capital and social cohesion might ease the rise of the citizen initiatives that aim to tackle the challenges that ensue from the pandemic. These do not come out of nowhere….(More)”.

Reinventing Public Administration for a Dangerous Century


Paper by Alasdair S. Roberts: “The first two decades of this century have shown there is no simple formula for governing well. Leaders must make difficult choices about national priorities and the broad lines of policy – that is, about the substance of their strategy for governing. These strategic choices have important implications for public administration. Scholars in this field should study the processes by which strategy is formulated and executed more closely than they have over the last thirty years. A new agenda for public administration should emphasize processes of top-level decision-making, mechanisms to improve foresight and the management of societal risks, and problems of large-scale reorganization and inter-governmental coordination, among other topics. Many of these themes have been examined more closely by researchers in Canada than by those abroad. This difference should be recognized an advantage rather than a liability….(More)”.

Covid-19 data is a public good. The US government must start treating it like one.


Ryan Panchadsaramarchive at MIT Technology Review: “…When the Trump administration stripped the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of control over coronavirus data, it also took that information away from the public….

This is also an opportunity for HHS to make this data machine readable and thereby more accessible to data scientists and data journalists. The Open Government Data Act, signed into law by President Trump, treats data as a strategic asset and makes it open by default. This act builds upon the Open Data Executive Order, which recognized that the data sets collected by the government are paid for by taxpayers and must be made available to them. 

As a country, the United States has lagged behind in so many dimensions of response to this crisis, from the availability of PPE to testing to statewide mask orders. Its treatment of data has lagged as well. On March 7, as this crisis was unfolding, there was no national testing data. Alexis Madrigal, Jeff Hammerbacher, and a group of volunteers started the COVID Tracking Project to aggregate coronavirus information from all 50 state websites into a single Google spreadsheet. For two months, until the CDC began to share data through its own dashboard, this volunteer project was the sole national public source of information on cases and testing. 

With more than 150 volunteers contributing to the effort, the COVID Tracking Project sets the bar for how to treat data as an asset. I serve on the advisory board and am awed by what this group has accomplished. With daily updates, an API, and multiple download formats, they’ve made their data extraordinarily useful. Where the CDC’s data is cited 30 times in Google Scholar and approximately 10,000 times in Google search results, the COVID Tracking Project data is cited 299 times in Google Scholar and roughly 2 million times in Google search results.

Sharing reliable data is one of the most economical and effective interventions the United States has to confront this pandemic. With the Coronavirus Task Force daily briefings a thing of the past, it’s more necessary than ever for all covid-related data to be shared with the public. The effort required to defeat the pandemic is not just a federal response. It is a federal, state, local, and community response. Everyone needs to work from the same trusted source of facts about the situation on the ground. Data is not a partisan affair or a bureaucratic preserve. It is a public trust—and a public resource….(More)”.

Narrative Observatory


About: “With initial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we are designing and developing a new purpose-built, multi-disciplinary, cross-institutional data platform to enable the reliable identification, measurement, and tracking of cultural narratives over long time scales across multiple cultural domains and media types, like online news, broadcast television, talk radio, and social media. Designed to provide better understanding of the cultural environment for key social issues, and more effective measurement of efforts to alter these environments, the goal is to help narrative change makers reach smarter strategic decisions and better understand their work’s impact.

We’re starting by looking at narratives around poverty and economic mobility in the U.S. . .(More)

Are Food Labels Good?


Paper by Cass Sunstein: “Do people from benefit from food labels? When? By how much? Public officials face persistent challenges in answering these questions. In various nations, they use four different approaches: they refuse to do so on the ground that quantification is not feasible; they engage in breakeven analysis; they project end-states, such as economic savings or health outcomes; and they estimate willingness-to-pay for the relevant information. Each of these approaches runs into strong objections. In principle, the willingness-to-pay question has important advantages. But for those who has that question, there is a serious problem. In practice, people often lack enough information to give a sensible answer to the question how much they would be willing to pay for (more) information. People might also suffer from behavioral biases (including present bias and optimistic bias). And when preferences are labile or endogenous, even an informed and unbiased answer to the willingness to pay question may fail to capture the welfare consequences, because people may develop new tastes and values as a result of information….(More)”.

How urban design can make or break protests


Peter Schwartzstein in Smithsonian Magazine: “If protesters could plan a perfect stage to voice their grievances, it might look a lot like Athens, Greece. Its broad, yet not overly long, central boulevards are almost tailor-made for parading. Its large parliament-facing square, Syntagma, forms a natural focal point for marchers. With a warren of narrow streets surrounding the center, including the rebellious district of Exarcheia, it’s often remarkably easy for demonstrators to steal away if the going gets rough.

Los Angeles, by contrast, is a disaster for protesters. It has no wholly recognizable center, few walkable distances, and little in the way of protest-friendly space. As far as longtime city activists are concerned, just amassing small crowds can be an achievement. “There’s really just no place to go, the city is structured in a way that you’re in a city but you’re not in a city,” says David Adler, general coordinator at the Progressive International, a new global political group. “While a protest is the coming together of a large group of people and that’s just counter to the idea of L.A.”

Among the complex medley of moving parts that guide protest movements, urban design might seem like a fairly peripheral concern. But try telling that to demonstrators from Houston to Beijing, two cities that have geographic characteristics that complicate public protest. Low urban density can thwart mass participation. Limited public space can deprive protesters of the visibility and hence the momentum they need to sustain themselves. On those occasions when proceedings turn messy or violent, alleyways, parks, and labyrinthine apartment buildings can mean the difference between detention and escape….(More)”.

Data is Dangerous: Comparing the Risks that the United States, Canada and Germany See in Data Troves


Paper by Susan Ariel Aaronson: “Data and national security have a complex relationship. Data is essential to national defense — to understanding and countering adversaries. Data underpins many modern military tools from drones to artificial intelligence. Moreover, to protect their citizens, governments collect lots of data about their constituents. Those same datasets are vulnerable to theft, hacking, and misuse. In 2013, the Department of Defense’s research arm (DARPA) funded a study examining if “ the availability of data provide a determined adversary with the tools necessary to inflict nation-state level damage. The results were not made public. Given the risks to the data of their citizens, defense officials should be vociferous advocates for interoperable data protection rules.

This policy brief uses case studies to show that inadequate governance of personal data can also undermine national security. The case studies represent diverse internet sectors affecting netizens differently. I do not address malware or disinformation, which are also issues of data governance, but have already been widely researched by other scholars. I illuminate how policymakers, technologists, and the public are/were unprepared for how inadequate governance spillovers affected national security. I then makes some specific recommendations about what we can do about this problem….(More)”.

The National Cancer Institute Cancer Moonshot Public Access and Data Sharing Policy—Initial assessment and implications


Paper by Tammy M. Frisby and Jorge L. Contreras: “Since 2013, federal research-funding agencies have been required to develop and implement broad data sharing policies. Yet agencies today continue to grapple with the mechanisms necessary to enable the sharing of a wide range of data types, from genomic and other -omics data to clinical and pharmacological data to survey and qualitative data. In 2016, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) launched the ambitious $1.8 billion Cancer Moonshot Program, which included a new Public Access and Data Sharing (PADS) Policy applicable to funding applications submitted on or after October 1, 2017. The PADS Policy encourages the immediate public release of published research results and data and requires all Cancer Moonshot grant applicants to submit a PADS plan describing how they will meet these goals. We reviewed the PADS plans submitted with approximately half of all funded Cancer Moonshot grant applications in fiscal year 2018, and found that a majority did not address one or more elements required by the PADS Policy. Many such plans made no reference to the PADS Policy at all, and several referenced obsolete or outdated National Institutes of Health (NIH) policies instead. We believe that these omissions arose from a combination of insufficient education and outreach by NCI concerning its PADS Policy, both to potential grant applicants and among NCI’s program staff and external grant reviewers. We recommend that other research funding agencies heed these findings as they develop and roll out new data sharing policies….(More)”.

The Computermen


Podcast Episode by Jill Lepore: “In 1966, just as the foundations of the Internet were being imagined, the federal government considered building a National Data Center. It would be a centralized federal facility to hold computer records from each federal agency, in the same way that the Library of Congress holds books and the National Archives holds manuscripts. Proponents argued that it would help regulate and compile the vast quantities of data the government was collecting. Quickly, though, fears about privacy, government conspiracies, and government ineptitude buried the idea. But now, that National Data Center looks like a missed opportunity to create rules about data and privacy before the Internet took off. And in the absence of government action, corporations have made those rules themselves….(More)”.