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Covid-19 tech risks widening the digital divide, experts warn

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Technologies designed to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic, such as contact-tracing apps, could be worsening the digital divide between some of the UK’s most disadvantaged communities, the Ada Lovelace Institute has said.

In its report, the Ada Lovelace Institute found a ‘data divide’ of inequalities in access, knowledge and awareness of digital health technologies used in the pandemic, such as symptom-tracking apps, contact-tracing apps and consumer-facing mental and physical health apps.

It also found that over half the UK public is concerned about the potential discriminatory impact of vaccine passports.

Around one-fifth (19 per cent) of the UK population said they do not have access to a smartphone, while another 14 per cent does not have access to broadband internet. Meanwhile, 60 per cent of the UK public has reportedly not heard of symptom-tracking apps, such as the Zoe Covid Symptom Study, and just over half had not heard of the availability of online medical appointment services.

Over half (54 per cent) think it is likely that vaccine passports would lead to discrimination against marginalised groups.

The findings of the survey, formed from a poll of 2,023 adults, highlights a stark divide in people’s experiences of technology used during the pandemic. 

The top reasons cited for not using these technologies related to concerns around accuracy and effectiveness. People with disabilities were also less likely to feel such apps would be effective for them.

The Institute called on policymakers and technology developers to place greater emphasis on understanding the attitudes of the wider population before and during implementation of digital health technologies in order to ensure greater public trust.

Carly Kind, director of the Ada Lovelace Institute, said: “The long-researched ‘digital divide’ risks transforming into the ‘data divide’, as data-driven technologies developed in response to the coronavirus pandemic – such as vaccine passports, symptom-tracking apps, and digital contact-tracing technologies – benefit, represent and respond to the needs of some people and some groups more than others.

“These findings show that we as a society need a much more inclusive approach to developing data and data-driven systems.”

Adam Steventon, director of data analytics at the Health Foundation, said: “Advances in the development and use of data-driven technology could play a critical role in supporting the recovery and improvement of NHS and social care services, as well as the health of the population, in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Decisions made now about how these technologies are designed and deployed will set the precedent for how this happens in the future. However, these survey findings highlight the risk that technologies can exacerbate health inequalities, negatively impacting the most vulnerable and disadvantaged.”

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