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Coronalert turns one year old: what went wrong?

Wednesday, 08 September 2021
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.

At the end of September 2020 Coronalert, the Belgian COVID-19 contact-tracing app was launched. One year after its implementation, the app did not reach the hoped number of downloads. What went wrong with the app that that was aimed at helping to slow down the spread of the virus?

Interviews with Brussels residents showed the reasons why Coronalert was such a flop. Most residents expressed ethical concerns, especially when it comes to their privacy. Although Coronalert was built in the most privacy-preserving way possible, residents have the perception the app might violate their private life.

Other participants felt like they were not encouraged to download Coronalert or that no one was using the app and therefore did not feel the need to download it.

What emerges from these interviews is a lack of targeted communication. From an institutional perspective, the communication was focused on the privacy-preserving nature of Coronalert. The Coronalert website provides lengthy information on how the app works (in French, Dutch, German and English) and tv spots were created. But it looks like this kind of communication did not convince the citizens.

With Coronalert, it seems like we are facing the issue of the primacy effect, which is the tendency to remember the first information we hear about something and tend to disregard the information presented later on. Back in spring and summer 2020, when the discussion about CTAs was particularly heated, the most pressing concerns were the potential privacy violations and potential surveillance the app might have caused. When the app was launched in September, all everyone could think about when hearing the word “contact-tracing app” was a violation of privacy.

The Belgian government tried so badly to highlight how secure the app was, that they did forget however was that the app needed to be sold, as any other commercial app. In the age of social media, which are notoriously using surveillance techniques for economic gains, it seems absurd that an app designed for the common good and with all the necessary security requirements, did not manage to reach a significant amount of the population.

It is essential to develop a safe app, but it is also important to be able to sell the app to the population. Coronalert needed a communication able to combine the practical aspects of the app, its safeness and transparency as well as a communication highlighting what people would get by downloading the app.

And here we are, one year later, with another government-supported innovation that was a complete failure. And for the future, let’s not forget that “It’s not what you sell that matters as much as how you sell it.”