On the podcast: Possibilities and limitations of digital contact tracing

Kaia Colban: So right now we see a lot of startups trying to focus on returning your employees to work and contact tracing.

Lee: Kaia Colban is an emerging technology research analyst with PitchBook, who focuses primarily on health and wellness markets.

Kaia: Initially, it looks like a really profitable industry, but eventually COVID is going to go away. And while we might have a pandemic in the future, I think the government is building a strong pandemic response infrastructure that’s going to, hopefully, minimize the risk and limit the chance of this happening again. And once that vaccine is created, these returned to work startups and technological platforms are not going to be able to create the same level of benefit that they are now. So we really do not see a huge long-term market for contact tracing and return-to-work solutions. Even Envoy doesn’t believe this to be a huge profitable service in the future. Instead, it’s an add-on to the workplace management solution that they already offer. And right now it’s bringing in new customers. They just signed their largest contract to date and that client was interested in Envoy Protect, but they didn’t sign with Envoy exclusively for Envoy Protect. They signed with Envoy for the holistic suite of products that Envoy offers that span outside the health and wellness space.

Lee: So perhaps COVID won’t be with us forever, but it’s likely not going away any time soon, as many health experts predict, it could take years for life to return to something resembling a pre-pandemic normal. And that outlook continues to drive demand for contact tracing solutions. But those waters continue to be a bit murky.

Lee: Alex, I wonder if you could just hone in on some of the primary obstacles to implementing technology as a solution in this situation, specifically contact tracing.

Alex: There’s a ton of obstacles with implementing contact tracing. There is adoption; there’s accuracy; there is privacy. You can’t do a good contact tracing solution if not everybody adopts it. It’s kind of like wearing masks. If not everybody wears masks, people are still going to get sick. If not everybody is willing to submit to a contact tracing solution, then you’re going to miss some of the data. And then on the accuracy piece, if you look at different solutions … So if you have like a sensor that you attach to a worker and they’re moving around the workplace and everybody’s sensors are talking to each other all the time, and you’re building up this massive data set to do contact tracing on, it may not actually be the right approach to notify every single person in the workplace when a device says it may have been within 30 feet of someone. You could end up creating a scare that does not create a better environment for people and doesn’t optimize for stopping the spread of coronavirus. That’s a big challenge around accuracy is, how do you pick—and it’s very many colors of gray here—but how do you pick the right approach for who to notify around privacy, like some legal issues depending on where you’re located. And then on top of that, depending on what solution a customer or workplace goes with, what type of data they’re collecting, who needs to access it?

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