As the COVID-19 pandemic has brought on rapid shifts in work, the practice of social distancing, and the need to gather vast amounts of data, it has also revealed a stark gap between the technology “haves” and “have-nots.”
Digital technology has undoubtedly made social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic more palatable for many groups of people. It has allowed households to stay at home and order groceries online, watch Netflix, and conduct Zoom calls for work. But remaining at home throughout the pandemic is not possible for everyone, and much of the news reporting in recent weeks and months has focused on the issue of equity. In a recent paper, we argued that while many news outlets have focused on how this issue of equity reflects income disparity, that discussion has ignored the role of the diffusion of high-speed internet service. We showed that high-income earners are able to better maintain social distancing practices when they have access to high-speed internet.
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However, this reflects the fact that so much of the conversation about how to use technology to improve our ability to fight the pandemic overlooks the sizable technology gaps that persist throughout populations. When we think about broadband internet or other technologies important during this crisis, let’s not just think about whether there is sufficient infrastructure and diffusion, but whether people across different groups have access and can afford to pay for it.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the recent discussion about the use of smartphones for contact tracing. The idea behind this technology is that a person’s smartphone could record their proximity to other peoples’ smartphones using Bluetooth. Consequently, when someone finds out they are infected with COVID-19, their phone can then send an alert to any phones it has been in recent contact with, to warn the owner about potential exposure and prompt them to go into quarantine.
Much of the policy focus of the contact-tracing conversation has been on privacy, surveillance, and access to the data. But few have raised the issue about what happens to people who do not have access to a smartphone.
Luckily, the American Community Survey, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, gives us data to understand more about smartphone use and what groups of people these types of policies would be overlooking.
An overwhelming driver is age. Data on smartphone use by age group shows that more than half of people age 80 or older don’t have a smartphone. (See “Distribution of Smartphone Ownership by Age.”) We also know that older people are at higher risk of death from COVID-19.
Contact tracing can serve as an important tool for detecting the possible spread of the virus and preventing further infections. It has seen success in countries like South Korea, where the government combined widespread tracing with high-tech surveillance. However, if we are going to rely on contact tracing as a means to speed recovery and a return to normal economic activity in the U.S., this will leave half of the population that is most vulnerable to the disease exposed. This should be a central consideration for policy makers making decisions about not only tracing methods but also about when and how to reopen economies.
A question for businesses is, what can they do to help address this issue of technology access and inequity in this crisis? The first action they can take involves rethinking one of the essential tenets of marketing: the idea that you can’t be all things to all people. Most successful businesses will have a segment of consumers that they never reach. Indeed, businesses are told when implementing new technologies in the market that their focus should be on early adopters. However, very little prescriptive advice exists about what to do with the opposite category of people who are rather pejoratively referred to as technology laggards. If we are trying to deploy digital technologies as useful tools to fight the pandemic, that laggard segment becomes incredibly important. Understanding who they are and whether they are likely to be particularly vulnerable is even more important.
Companies joining the fight against the pandemic must understand that their efforts to connect people with potentially lifesaving technologies are going to rely on their ability to manage network effects. Network effects show us that some digital services become more valuable as more people use them. If you are the only person using Slack in your workplace, for example, it really isn’t that useful. Typically, when we exploit network effects to enable a digital business, the focus is on getting enough of the right kind of users to attract other users to get around the chicken-and-egg problem. However, the emphasis is always on enough and not on the idea that you need to get all users or that it is viable or attractive to do so. We argue that when considering digital solutions to the pandemic, attracting enough users to leverage network effects will not suffice.
Yes, a phone-based contact-tracing app will work if enough people adopt it. And it will be useful if most people adopt it. But it is far more attractive as a policy solution if all people are able to adopt it. Otherwise, the data neglects important populations and will give false assurance. If, as is reasonably likely based on our research, a resident of a nursing home does not have a mobile device, then any visitor will not be alerted if that person becomes infected. Similarly, that nursing home resident will not be alerted if the visitor ends up being infected. This is worrying, given the central role of nursing homes in the diffusion and mortality rates of the pandemic in the U.S. Once we recognize the problem, it’s easier to determine solutions. Cellular technology is relatively inexpensive and would be easy to deploy in a nursing home environment. However, the key thing is to explicitly address potential solutions in any plan.
The documents that Google recently released about anonymous contact tracing using mobile devices touted many benefits, including privacy and anonymity by not collecting personal information or location data. Google also emphasized that the type of smartphone was not a concern for tracing efforts, because they could be conducted across both Android and iPhone platforms. However, Google and others in the discussion have yet to grapple with the consequences for people who do not have access to any smartphone. We argue that this segment of society — people who are typically ignored and regarded as unable or unwilling to embrace digital technology — are now becoming uniquely important and need to be part of any plan to use digital technology to help stem the pandemic.