Alfaisal UniversityExploring the acceptance of Covid-19 tracing apps

Exploring the acceptance of Covid-19 tracing apps

 Contact tracing app

Mobile applications for tracing the coronavirus have become a crucial tool for governments during the pandemic, but they are effective only if the population is willing to embrace them

With Covid-19 spreading fast, governments around the world have been forced into action. Needing to quickly track the virus’ spread, contact tracing apps, which promise to identify and help contain new infections by tracing users’ social contact points, are a popular solution.

Such apps can act as a tool to prevent lockdowns and allow the relaxing of social distancing regulations. This could keep populations healthy by quickly identifying new outbreaks while allowing economic activity to continue. But concerns about the intrusiveness of the apps and their use of personal data mean that not everyone is keen to use them.

Dr Welf H. Weiger, chair of the department of marketing at Alfaisal University, is investigating the public mass acceptance of Covid-19 tracing apps. The ongoing project was one of several to receive funding after Dr Mohammed Alhayaza, president of Alfaisal University, put out an urgent request to researchers for studies that might ease the impact of the pandemic.

“We started this project because we were fascinated by this new category of apps, which do not have traditional consumption motives for using them. The difference is that using these kinds of public health apps is more a pro-social activity,” says Dr Weiger. “This category of public health apps provides a duality of benefits. On the one hand, they provide a benefit to the whole society when enough people are using them. And on the other hand, by tracing your contacts and informing you whether you have been in contact with someone who has been infected with the coronavirus, you also protect your own health. We wanted to find out which of these benefits policymakers should highlight in their communications because, when they are rolling out the app, they have to communicate the benefits to motivate citizens to use it.”

Dr Weiger’s research project, which involves several studies, follows two approaches. First, an experimental approach where different versions of the Covid-19 tracing app are designed for feedback, and second, a multi-wave survey.

To be effective, tracing apps need mass adoption. In Germany, where Dr Weiger’s project is focused, it is estimated that at least 50 per cent of citizens must use the app for its tracing functionalities to be effective. Depending on the country, some studies suggest that up to 80 per cent of the population must adopt a tracing app for it to work as intended.

Users must proactively provide personal information about whether they are infected with coronavirus or not and must also share their location data. These apps have to run constantly and require regular maintenance, like installing updates.

For the first experiment in the project, Dr Weiger worked with colleagues with expertise in information systems from the University of Goettingen in Germany, Lancaster University in the UK and Hong Kong Baptist University. They designed different app specifications based on three characteristics: privacy, convenience and the promoted benefits.

Respondents were divided into three groups according to their intention to install the app. “Critics” had a low intention to install, “advocates” had a high intention to install, and the “undecided” group sat between the two.

The international research team looked at how different drivers of app adoption worked for each group. “We found that for the undecided group, high convenience is most important,” says Dr Weiger. “For the critics, we found that high privacy design is most important. So, for people who are reluctant to install the app, the biggest hurdle is the privacy risk.” Another important finding from the study, published in the European Journal of Information Systems, is that promoting the social benefit of the app – as opposed to individual benefit – was more likely to result in acceptance.

“Users have a higher intention to install when only the societal benefit of using the app is communicated – so basically, the pro-social behaviour. As soon as you highlight an individual benefit, the installation intention goes down,” says Dr Weiger. “We argued that this may be because citizens really want to contribute to society, and they don’t want to engage in behaviour that only benefits themselves. Even if we combined communicating societal and individual benefits, it reduced the installation intention and the adoption rate. The effect was most pronounced in the group of critics, but we saw the same tendency in the other groups.”

In identifying which factors are more likely to work for different groups, the researchers hope their insights can help governments with future decisions on public health app design and roll-out.

“You need high convenience, you need to reduce the perceived privacy risks and you need to communicate societal benefits. So, make sure that users are aware of the benefits of using the app and that their privacy concerns are mitigated,” says Dr Weiger. “Our results can inform how policymakers and governments work together with app developers to create the best specifications of the app so that they are adopted by the mass of the population.”

As the pandemic continues, more questions will emerge that research needs to answer. Dr Weiger and his co-authors from the University of Goettingen – Simon Trang and Manuel Trenz – are currently working on three projects.

The first is examining the deviations between citizen surveys and actual behaviour, looking at, for example, why someone who is inclined to install the app decides not to. The second study is exploring the behaviour of users who have installed the app, considering questions such as whether app users might be emboldened to take more risks during the pandemic. The third project focuses on conspiracy beliefs and public health app adoption.

Additionally, at Alfaisal University’s department of marketing, Dr Weiger and his colleagues – Dr Abdel Monim Shaltoni, associate professor of marketing, and Dr Saad Alhoqail, assistant professor of marketing – are looking to conduct a follow-up study in Saudi Arabia to examine whether national culture affects drivers of the acceptance of public health apps.

Find out more about Alfaisal University’s department of marketing.

Research published as ‘One app to trace them all? Examining app specifications for mass acceptance of contact-tracing apps’ in the European Journal of Information Systems. Written by Simon Trang, Manuel Trenz, Welf H. Weiger, Monideepa Tarafdar and Christy M.K. Cheung.

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