When developers last month introduced Care19, an app to complement contact-tracing efforts in North Dakota and South Dakota during the coronavirus pandemic, they quickly encountered a problem: It sometimes showed users inaccurate information about the specific businesses they had visited.
That is not unusual for apps that locate devices using GPS along with cellular and Wi-Fi signals, but users wrote the support team to express concern about it. The developers knew that people would only use the app if they believed it worked properly, and that contact-tracing apps are more effective when more people use them.
“There’s some inherent uncertainty in the whole process,” said Tim Brookins, chief executive officer at ProudCrowd LLC, which developed Care19, referring to the app’s location-tracking technology. “We didn’t set the expectations properly.”
Now the app makes its best effort to identify stops along users’ way, but it uses a different text color and shows a question mark next to the location, in case users want to fix it.
Health officials consider tracing the contacts of people who test positive for the coronavirus an essential tool for controlling its spread, particularly as states across the U.S. loosen their lockdowns. Developers have rushed to answer the need with apps meant to measure users’ proximity to people with the virus.
In addition to the well-publicized privacy concerns around tracking many people’s movements and interactions, however, developers face the challenge of creating user interfaces simple and compelling enough that the apps will attract a critical mass of users.
In countries like the U.K. or Australia, which have developed or are developing countrywide apps for citizens to use, 56% of the population needs to download and use the app for it to be effective, said Jesse Colligan, a software engineer and spokesperson at Covid Watch, a nonprofit that created a exposure-notification app that was developed by researchers. Deploying apps to smaller targets such as workplaces may give them a better chance to get enough adoption to work well, Mr. Colligan said.
“You’re talking about achieving Instagram-like scale in a matter of weeks or months, which is extremely difficult to do unless you have an extremely compelling value proposition and people are hearing about it,” Mr. Colligan said.
A state-based approach
Only 4.4% of North Dakota residents have downloaded Care19 and turned on its location services. In South Dakota, more than 2% have downloaded the app.
To lure more users, Care19 has tried to gamify the app’s map section. It shows dots that grow based on how many people are using the app with location services turned on in an area and have recorded a visit. ProudCrowd’s Mr. Brookins said the map serves no purpose for contact tracers, but gives users a reason to keep using the app.
Apps vary widely in their strategies.
In Utah, an app called Healthy Together tracks contacts and recommends tests for users who report certain symptoms. And as the state continues to reopen its economy, Healthy Together will soon offer an additional map feature: a warning system somewhat like the pollen or smog alerts available in weather apps, but suggesting the rules of engagement people should follow that day.
It will use colors to indicate risk levels in the vicinity, adjusted to reflect users’ relative vulnerability to the virus. The color orange, for example, has a set of guidelines for users to follow, such as congregating in groups of 20 people or less. The app may also show entire counties, cities and townships in a certain color.
“We wanted to provide a stable and consistent and trustworthy source of information coming directly from the state to its population,” said Jay Ahlstrom, co-founder and chief product officer at Twenty Labs LLC, which built Healthy Together for Utah.
Another symptom-sharing and exposure notification app, CoEpi, is designed for people who want to alert others if they may have been exposed to Covid-19, even if they don’t have a positive test result in hand.
CoEpi also is considering a more customized approach to exposure notification alerts, where a user could choose to be notified only if they were around someone who tested positive for the coronavirus for longer than 15 minutes, for example. The current default setting doesn’t put a minimum on exposure time.
The design challenge for contact-tracing apps isn’t about figuring out where buttons should go on an app, but tailoring them for various users, regions and more, said Justin Maguire, chief design officer at Salesforce.com Inc., which is working on technology tools around Covid-19 for more than 25 state, county and city agencies.
“This is a new type of relationship between people and their employers and people and their community,” Mr. Maguire said.
A partnership between Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google poses a potential wrinkle in some of these apps’ plans. The companies announced a Bluetooth-based contact tracing system, along with a set of principles to abide by, such as prohibiting the collection of location data.
ProudCrowd’s Mr. Brookins said he is in the process of creating a new app, one with location tracking, to use the Bluetooth technology.
Write to Ann-Marie Alcántara at [email protected]
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