Why aren’t more people downloading COVID contact tracing apps?


A new study by York University researchers points to accessibility issues and perception of privacy as the biggest obstacles

TORONTO, March 22, 2021 − With rates of COVID-19 continuing to rise, apps like Canada’s COVID Alert app still are not being downloaded by the majority of the population, according to new research at York University’s Digital Global Health & Humanitarianism (DGHH) Lab. Researchers at the lab, which is affiliated with the Disaster and Emergency Management program and the Dahdaleh Institute for Global Health Research, found that accessibility and inclusion challenges − such as the lack of multilingual functionality on the apps − along with perceptions around privacy, are deterring users from downloading the app.

The DGHH Lab today released 23 recommendations on how to better develop, implement, and regulate digital contact tracing apps so that apps can be improved in ways that are meaningful to users, to increase app uptake, and ultimately, make these apps more effective in the response to COVID-19. This research stems from a previous study they conducted looking at digital technology use during COVID-19.

“Canada’s COVID Alert app is more privacy-centric. However, the perceptions people have – such as that the app is tracking users’ locations or that the data collected is used for other purposes – may not reflect the reality of the situation. That’s why it's important to have clear and transparent communication about how this app works, what this app does, and what privacy issues are actual concerns, in order to combat any misinformation,” says Rebecca Babcock, research coordinator, Digital Global Health & Humanitarianism Lab.

She adds that currently Canada’s COVID Alert app is available only in English and French. “The lack of language options creates an accessibility barrier for some of Canada’s multicultural population. Developers, implementers, and regulators really need to focus their attention on inclusive design to improve uptake.”

Researchers reviewed the use of these types of apps in several countries and found user uptake of these digital contact tracing apps fluctuated greatly around the world, which directly impacted their ability to be useful in the response to COVID-19.  They identified factors that can influence users to download or not download a digital contact tracing app by focusing on the user, which was identified as a gap.

“Digital contact tracing apps can definitely play a big role in combatting transmission, however, for that to happen, they must be implemented focusing on the needs, wants and fears of the people expected to use these apps. Combined they must be designed to complement the gaps of existing systems they aim to support, from health systems to social systems,” says Jennie Phillips, director, Digital Global Health & Humanitarianism Lab.

Based on a number of factors, such as population, uptake rates, location, etc., researchers selected Scotland, Cyprus, Iceland, Ireland, and South Africa. They reached out to experts and conducted interviews as well as conducted an extensive literature review. The findings were analyzed using a systems approach to understand how people are influenced by individual, community, and system level factors around the world.

Researchers say without understanding users and finding ways to mitigate the risks and amplify the benefits that users find most influential, user uptake cannot be improved.

The research identified eight factors influencing users across countries:

  1. Perceptions of Data Collection and Management
  2. Sense of Community
  3. Communications & Misinformation
  4. Accessibility & Inclusion
  5. Trust in Public/Private institutions
  6. Policy and Governance
  7. Response Infrastructure
  8. Digital Capability


Researchers Jennie Phillips and Rebecca Babcock are available for interviews.


York University is a modern, multi-campus, urban university located in Toronto, Ontario. Backed by a diverse group of students, faculty, staff, alumni and partners, we bring a uniquely global perspective to help solve societal challenges, drive positive change and prepare our students for success. York's fully bilingual Glendon Campus is home to Southern Ontario's Centre of Excellence for French Language and Bilingual Postsecondary Education. York’s campuses in Costa Rica and India offer students exceptional transnational learning opportunities and innovative programs. Together, we can make things right for our communities, our planet, and our future. 


Media Contact: 

Anjum Nayyar, York University Media Relations, cell 437 242 1547, anayyar@yorku.ca