A crisis is not an excuse: community engagement, social licence, and digital contact tracing

Emma Blomkamp
12 min readAug 30, 2021


Emma Blomkamp with Anna Brown [1]

As Australia rode the first wave of the pandemic in April 2020, Prime Minister Scott Morrison dangled the new COVIDSafe app as a carrot to coax the public out of lockdown safely. When the app was released, he compared it to sunscreen, urging Australians not only to download it but to encourage others to do the same.

That is Australia’s ticket to a COVID-safe Australia where we can go about doing the things we love doing once again, Morrison said.

Two months later, the curve was pushing upwards again and the app hadn’t helped with any contact tracing, despite being downloaded 6.4 million times. Representing about 28% of the population with a smartphone, this fell short of the government’s own target of 40 per cent, not to mention expert estimates that an uptake of at least 60% of the population is needed for digital contact tracing to be effective. The federal government refused to disclose how many people were using the app, though registrations had slowed to reach around 7 million by October 2020.

During the second wave of the pandemic in Victoria, the state health department downloaded data from the COVIDSafe app, but this did not help to identify any close contacts not already found through traditional contact tracing methods. At the same time it was reported that COVIDSafe app data had been used by NSW health officials to identify close contacts, but only one out of every five people infected with COVID-19 in New South Wales communities in 2020 had been using the Australian app. It appears that between April 2020 and July 2021, Australia’s COVIDSafe app detected only 17 close contacts who were not otherwise identified through manual contact tracing.

Digital contact tracing apps are effective when they provide automated notifications after a phone registers your proximity to someone who later tests positive for COVID-19. The UK’s £37 billion (yes, billion!) test-and-trace system is sending out so many notifications that it’s being described as a ‘pingdemic’. Yet during outbreaks in Australian states in 2021, the public has been encouraged to trawl through long lists of exposure sites on government and news websites, like that pictured below.

Screenshot of COVID exposure venues in NSW on 12 July 2021 from ABC news.

So what happened with COVIDSafe, not to mention all the other proximity tracing apps hastily developed and hailed as solutions to the pandemic? Was the Australian app poorly designed or badly implemented, or both? Could it ever have been capable of living up to its political promise?

As part of a team engaged to develop the social licence for a contact tracing app during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia, we gained firsthand insights into the design and development process. We anticipated the implementation challenges faced by the app and developed a model for determining community comfort and securing social licence for this technology and data use.

This article shares some of our reflections from that experience. We do not outline the technical flaws of the app, which were predicted and have been documented elsewhere; nor do we point to the obvious need to invest in and implement accompanying backend systems of digital contact tracing. Rather, we focus on the importance of engaging community members and exploring ethical issues in the development of this kind of technology.

Australia might have largely abandoned the nationwide COVIDSafe app, but these issues remain highly relevant for other government-backed responses to the pandemic. Some of these concerns were highlighted when police used data from the Check In Queensland app as well as in a report from the Independent Advisory Groups in New Zealand, emphasising the ‘importance of community engagement in the design and delivery of ongoing surveillance… especially amongst Māori and Pacific communities.’ Recent discussions of mandatory record-keeping in New Zealand have similarly flagged issues of public trust, privacy and digital literacy.

Our role in developing a contact tracing app prototype

In March 2020, we joined a team developing a prototype COVID-19 contact tracing application for a state health agency in Australia [1]. Working alongside fellow researchers from five universities across Australia and New Zealand, we developed an approach to securing social licence and building community comfort around the proposed app.

Shortly after our initial community engagement, the Australian Government announced it was developing an automated contact tracing app, separately to our work. The state health agency we were working with opted to discontinue our project to support the national approach.

Our team presented findings to the federal agencies involved in the national project, who were particularly interested in our approach to social licence and community engagement. Professor Mark Western, Director, Institute for Social Science Research, noted that:

despite the project not proceeding to implementation, those involved in the local and international COVID-19 response have praised the work as an important and timely contribution.

It seems a similar focus on ethics, desirability and feasibility was lacking in the Australian Government’s $16 million-plus project.

The top five insights from our work were:

  1. Social licence is likely only attainable for a privacy-first contact tracing app.
  2. Community engagement is key but not sufficient to establish social licence.
  3. Equity and fairness concerns must be addressed in the development and deployment of the app.
  4. The government needs to communicate the right messages, recognise legitimate privacy and ethical concerns, and counter the inevitable push-back and opposition.
  5. Building and maintaining community acceptability would determine the fate of the app.

In the rest of this article, we expand on these insights by exploring what social licence looks like in this context and sharing what we learned about the necessity and difficulty of engaging communities on contentious technology development during a crisis.

Social licence for data use

Social Licence describes a metaphorical agreement between the public and an organisation for a specific activity (Bice 2014). The business-oriented construct of social licence to operate is a risk-management approach that emerged in the mining industry in response to environmental disasters and community conflict, and became increasingly common in natural resource management, such as the forestry, gas and fishing industries (Dare et al 2014; Bice 2014; Edwards and Trafford 2016). You may be more familiar with one of its synonyms: ‘social responsibility’, ‘how we do business’ or ‘community licence’ (Edwards and Trafford 2016).

It has become increasingly common to refer to ‘social licence’; roughly, to the idea that the legitimacy of some activity — mining, oil exploration, the use of advanced analytics by Government agencies — depends upon its ongoing approval or acceptance by affected communities. — Professor Tim Dare

The concept of social licence is now entering government lexicon and getting applied to less tangible resources, such as data. Statistics NZ, for instance, measured its ‘social licence’ in 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, defining it as ‘the permission we have to make decisions about the management and use of the public’s data without sanction’. In 2020 the definition evolved to include a social licence framework with four pillars: value of data, safe data, trust and transparency, and working together. For Statistics NZ, social licence is trust — specifically how much the public trusts the organisation with their personal information.

In our case, the social licence for a contact tracing app would cover data use by the government, in which the population:

  • trust that the benefits will outweigh the risks;
  • trust that their data will be used as they have agreed; and
  • accept that if enough value is created, they will be more comfortable with its use.

Building on previous work, Toi Aria: Design for Public Good proposed exploring the use of a data dial with eight questions that need to be answered as part of the social licence for a contact tracing app.

Data dial with 8 questions, from the recently released Guidelines for Trusted Data Use [3].

These questions highlight that acceptance of any current or proposed data use depends on whether it offers sufficient value, protection and choice for those being asked to provide data and for the wider community.

Professor Tim Dare, who developed ethical guidelines for our tracing app, expresses concerns about claims that social licence has normative weight. It should not, he argues, be used to conclude that a certain activity is morally permissible. Tim Dare distinguishes between, on one hand, the pragmatic value of social licence, which is about social acceptability, or “what the public think”, and can be measured empirically; and, on the other hand, the normative value of ethical guardrails, which are derived from moral truths.

[Social licence] tells you what you can do and what you can get away with and what people will cooperate with. It doesn’t tell you anything about whether they are right … By all means, use social licence, but be crystal clear about its limitations — that what you do when you go around and talk to people about what data practices they’re happy with, what you find out is what data practices people are happy with. You don’t find out … whether this is a justifiable practice… You don’t make any claim to moral infallibility, or, “Gosh, morality turns out to be easy, we do a survey.” — Tim Dare

Like much of the literature on social licence (Edwards and Trafford 2016), Tim Dare’s comments help us to see what social licence is not. It does not offer a moral justification for, in this case, governments collecting data on the public’s movements and contacts, even in a state of emergency. What it does offer is an indication of the level of community comfort, or social acceptability, with a digital contact tracing app. This is important, not only because such an app is ineffective without a majority of the population using it.

Exploring social licence can also provide different perspectives on the ethical guardrails and practical functions of technology as they are being developed. These insights could have been used in the design and development process in order to make improvements to the contact tracing app before its initial release, improving its functionality, user experience and ability to effectively meet ethical guidelines. This in turn could have improved public trust in the app, which would result in increased uptake, leading to greater efficacy of digital contact tracing, and creating a virtuous cycle (as pictured).

Social licence for COVID-19 contact tracing apps: creating a virtuous cycle

The New Zealand experience illustrates how the social licence for COVID-19 apps works in practice — though questions are being raised about the limited use of Bluetooth tracing despite the capability for this within NZ COVID Tracer.

Social licence for contact tracing app: in practice in New Zealand

On the value and challenges of engaging community in a crisis

Engaging stakeholders and community members in the development and design of a contact tracing app is an essential, early and vital step — if the app is to be effective. Engagement can provide crucial information on issues of concern to the community and feedback on the shape of social licence; raise ethical concerns; and guide the development of communications.

Given the large and diverse nature of the communities that would use and be affected by a contact tracing app, a number of targeted engagement methods would be required. We had planned to complement community and stakeholder engagement with reviewing literature and public opinion surveys, as well as the expert development of ethical guidelines.

As Melanie Dare and colleagues (2014) have argued, rather than see social licence as a single agreement granted by a specific community, ‘social licence is better conceptualised as a continuum of multiple licences achieved across various levels of society’. This is particularly relevant when considering technology and data use among a large and socially diverse state or country. Building on this idea, we conceived of multiple levels of community engagement required to develop social licence for a state- or nation-wide application (as visualised below).

Levels of community engagement for social licence for a COVID-19 app

Although engaging community members at a distance during a state of emergency is difficult, it is not impossible. And a little effort is better than none.

Before our project came to a sudden halt, we commenced community engagement by initially gathering feedback from health consumers through an online workshop. Although this was a short engagement with a small group of people, our focus on listening to consumers rather than presenting to them at length was effective. These community members raised many concerns and considerations that would need to be addressed for the app to be successfully deployed.

The consumer engagement identified, in particular, a need for clear and consistent communications around how the app detects and records a ‘contact’, and how and when this data is stored and shared. A lack of understanding about manual contact tracing drove many concerns about the use of an automated app.

We found little support for an app unless it was privacy-preserving. Consumers expressed significant concern about the potential for app data to be used by authorities to track individuals (as recently happened in Queensland) or to alert people of identifiable positive cases or high risk areas. We concluded that an alternative, additional social licence would be required if the app was to be used in any identifying way, e.g. as some form of ‘COVID passport’ by employers to allow people to return to a workplace.

We advised the rest of our team and the commissioning agency that the most important factor in successfully deploying and implementing a contact tracing app is not getting the technology right, as important as this is, but securing social licence and building and maintaining community acceptability. This is because, to be effective, a contact tracing app requires at least 60% take-up (based on Oxford modelling). Having the best technology in the world won’t ensure this threshold is reached. Social licence is needed.

As our project concluded, we had determined there was significant risk of low uptake of a proximity tracing app if:

  1. concerns around privacy and security of data were not mitigated;
  2. the communications strategy was poorly coordinated or materials had unclear messaging; and
  3. nothing was effectively done to address a lack of trust in government authorities promoting the app.

We also assumed that functionality flaws would be addressed — our team was using different code to Singapore’s TraceTogether to overcome its known problems on iPhones — and that the federal government would be supporting state health departments in coordinating efforts to align their contact tracing systems and practices with the data available from the app. It seems however, that a lack of attention was paid to social and organisational contexts in rolling out COVIDSafe.

Social licence for contact tracing app: critical issues in practice in Australia

As the saying goes, with every complex problem there’s a solution that’s simple, clear and usually wrong. Dr Julie Leask of Sydney University on COVIDSafe

The ‘technical quick fix’ of an app was once again hailed as a solution to a complex problem that required a multifaceted response. The Australian Prime Minister compared the app to sunscreen, suggesting that’s all we needed to individually protect ourselves from this health threat, rather than considering the bigger picture. But the government departments behind the app’s development could have done a much better job.

The poor outcome of the Australian tracing app shows what happens when there isn’t sufficient effort to secure social licence by building and maintaining community acceptability.

Community engagement is both necessary and insufficient to achieve social licence. It is easy to justify skipping it in a crisis, because you need to respond quickly, or because it is too hard to do really well. But it is too risky not to do any community engagement at all.

Endnotes & acknowledgements

  1. A facilitator and researcher of strategic design, Dr Emma Blomkamp wrote this article on the unceded land of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. Associate Professor Anna Brown leads Toi Āria: Design for Public Good, a research centre in the College of Creative Arts at Massey University in Aotearoa New Zealand. With thanks to Matt Law, Toi Āria designer, for the visual diagrams, and Simon Mark, Toi Āria researcher and writer, for feedback on an early version of this article. Thanks also to Professor Tim Dare of The University of Auckland for taking part in an interview for this article, with Anna and Emma, on 3 September 2020.
  2. In conjunction with the Institute for Social Science Research (University of Queensland) and collaborators, Toi Āria facilitated consumer engagement in Australia and provided social licence, ethics and business process advice on a prototype mobile application for COVID-19 contact tracing.
  3. The questions on the Data Dial were developed through an engagement process with New Zealand people. The public were asked what they expected and needed from organisations dealing with data about people. For more information, see Trusted Data Use Guidelines For Aotearoa New Zealand.