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

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

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.

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.

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).

  • 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.
Data dial with 8 questions, from the recently released Guidelines for Trusted Data Use [3].
Social licence for COVID-19 contact tracing apps: creating a virtuous cycle
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.

Levels of community engagement for social licence for a COVID-19 app
  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.
Social licence for contact tracing app: critical issues in practice in Australia

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.



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Emma Blomkamp

Emma Blomkamp

Pragmatic idealist, working to co-create compassionate systems. emmablomkamp.com