Challenges in developing proximity tracking apps

“Contact tracing is the process of identifying, assessing, and managing people who have been exposed to disease to prevent onward transmission.” (WHO, 2020). In recent times, proximity tracking apps are created for the surveillance of Covid-19 epidemic in many countries. Manual or traditional contact tracing consumes enormous amount of time, resources and are influenced how much a person could recollect about their contacts. Proximity tracing apps usually measure the closeness of the devices through signal strength (e.g. via Bluetooth) in order to identify the potential infected person. For example, Ketju, is a smartphone app developed in Finland to identify the user’s exposure to corona virus. The aim of this app is to support healthcare officials in the process of contact tracing efficiently and effectively.

Designing healthcare related applications are usually done meticulously to ensure efficiency for gaining users trust. Understanding and prioritizing user requirements over functional requirements of the application is critical especially in such applications that impact human lives. Moreover, when using an application, the benefits gained by the users must outweigh the sacrifices they made. On the other hand, it is challenging to develop a crisis-app because of its limited testing possibility.

Though contact tracing apps alleviate resource-intensive manual tracing, it could pose some social and ethical challenges when people use them. The potential challenges and key points that should be addressed during the design of contact tracing apps are listed below. Some action points are also highlighted.

  • Purpose of the app – it is essential to clarify the purpose of the app i.e. being vigilant in using user data for the defined purpose only
  • Users’ willingness to utilize the app
  • The app should minimize impact on privacy – the app should aim to collect as minimum user information and must protect the collected user data
  • Misuse cases with the app should be considered already during the design process – this helps in handling misuse consequences effectively
  • Equality/equity of technology – As smartphones are requisite for apps, any economically disadvantaged or elderly people could not be secluded or feel disadvantaged. Inclusion perspective during the design aids in handling this challenge better
  • Levels of transparency and explainability need to be defined – the explanation should use natural language without ambiguous terminologies. Following the guidelines provided by WHO and nation-specific guidelines for designing proximity tracking technologies could assist achieving transparency.


Andrew Crocker, Kurt Opsahl, AND Bennett Cyphers.The Challenge of Proximity Apps For COVID-19 Contact Tracing, Blog Post. Electronic Frontier Foundation. April 10, 2020.

Nagwa Konda, Kholoud Mansour, Lydia Tanner, Jennie Thomas. Human-centred design and humanitarian innovation. Designing solutions with people affected by disaster. DEPP Innovation Labs (2019).

Oliver, N. et al. Mobile phone data and COVID-19: Missing an opportunity? (2020).

Tim Dare, The ethics of contact tracing apps, University of Auckland (2020)

WHO, Ethical considerations to guide the use of digital proximity tracking technologies for COVID-19 contact tracing, Interim guidelines (2020)


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