Learning from the People: Responsibly Encouraging Adoption of Contact Tracing Apps

At the beginning of the pandemic, contact tracing apps proliferated as a potential solution to scaling infection tracking and response. While significant focus was put on developing privacy protocols for these apps, relatively less attention was given to understanding why, and why not, users might adopt them. Yet, for these technological solutions to benefit public health, users must be willing to adopt these apps. In this talk I showcase the value of taking a descriptive ethics approach to setting best practices in this new domain. Descriptive ethics, introduced by the field of moral philosophy, determines best practices by learning directly from the user—observing people’s preferences and inferring best practice from that behaviour—instead of exclusively relying on experts’ normative decisions. This talk presents an empirically validated framework of user’s decision inputs to adopt COVID-19 contact tracing apps, including app accuracy, privacy, benefits, and mobile costs. Using predictive models of users’ likelihood to install COVID apps based on quantifications of these factors, I show how high the bar is for achieving adoption. I conclude by discussing a large-scale field study in which we put our survey and experimental results into practice to help the state of Louisiana advertise their COVID app through a series of randomized controlled Google Ads experiments.

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