The case for human-centered contact tracing

Technology will play an important role in using contact tracing to help organizations respond to the pandemic. But we believe the best contact tracers are still humans—digitally assisted humans.

By and Amanda Ballard-Stuart | 2 minute read | September 29, 2020

Contact tracing is one of the traditional tools used by public health agencies to mitigate the spread of infectious diseases. As the economy re-opens, private sector organizations are adopting elements of contact tracing to help employees return to work and help students return to campus. In a survey of pandemic response team leaders, BCG found that 74% of respondents consider contact tracing to be an essential part of “return to work” technology solutions.1

Technology is increasingly being seen as an enabler to accelerate efforts to “flatten the curve” in response to COVID-19.  Yet, as the potential for these technologies are hyped, many government agencies, employers and universities have stuck with “tried and true” manual contact tracing methods. These methods have been historically successful in containing outbreaks of infectious diseases such as SARS and smallpox.2 Another study about the effectiveness of contact tracing, when combined with interventions, has shown how it can reduce transmission of COVID-19 more than mass testing or self-isolation alone. 3

For most organizations, contact tracing is part of a larger strategy to help ensure the health and safety of a population. Beyond the actual mechanics of “track and trace,” care management is a key component that focuses on the care and well-being of everyone by addressing individual needs.

A human-centered process is critical to enable a contact tracer to build trust with individuals and help them understand how sharing pertinent information can help protect the health and safety of those around them. But contact tracing can be complex and time intensive, and organizations are interested in finding ways to make that process more efficient and cost effective, such as automating and digitizing the more routine processes, without losing the personal touch.

In contact tracing, as in most human-machine interfaces, it is not a question about which is better, human or machine, but about how human and machine can be “better together”—specifically how digitization and artificial intelligence (AI) can make people better contact tracers.

People often first think about digital “proximity based” supports for contact tracing. As of this writing, there are technological, privacy and trust concerns to address before widespread adoption will be possible. Who can see the information? How will it be secured, and how will it be shared? How can individuals maintain control over their personal information?

But there are other technologies available now that can support a human-centered approach to contact tracing. These tools can serve as trusted assistants to contact tracers in ways which include:

  •   Digital scraping of contacts, communications and calendars (to support contact identification)
  •   Interview guides and workflows (to ensure consistent, high-quality interviews and notifications)
  •   Automated route-to-care guidance (to expedite employees to the right care)

These digital augmentations can help organizations reduce the costs of contact tracing by repurposing employees for this task or by improving the efficiency of each contact tracer.

In addition to proximity-based technologies, there are also options to employ conversational AI (aka chatbots) to assist with contract tracing. For example, healthcare organizations and government agencies are using IBM Watson Assistant to help staff respond to high volumes of calls with trusted, evidence-based responses. Routine calls are answered quickly and accurately, enabling call center teams to more fully engage with more complex requests. It is another example of how to enhance human-centered approaches with technology.

Governments, universities and companies should act now to incorporate contact tracing into their pandemic response strategy. A human-centered, digitally assisted contact tracing approach can help protect people and reduce community transmission as they return to work, return to campus and return to public life.

  1. C-Suite Buyer Survey: Return to Work IT Solutions” (July 2020, n=50), BCG analysis
  3. Effectiveness of isolation, testing, contact tracing, and physical distancing on reducing transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in different settings: a mathematical modelling study. Adam J Kucharski, PhD et al. The Lancet Infectious Diseases. Published: June 16, 2020DOI: