Pre-emptive warnings to take care

How a new app might empower people to take care as the virus approaches

Welcome to Plugging the Gap (my email newsletter about Covid-19 and its economics). In case you don’t know me, I’m an economist and professor at the University of Toronto. I have written lots of books including, most recently, on Covid-19. You can follow me on Twitter (@joshgans) or subscribe to this email newsletter here.

A plea

Before going on to today’s post, I have an ask. The updated version of my book, The Pandemic Information Gap: The Brutal Economics of COVID-19 (previously titled Economics in the Age of COVID-19) will be published by MIT Press on November 10th. For those who read the earlier version, this one is twice the length and now focussed on examining the pandemic as an information problem. Many of the themes will be familiar to readers here but the book is more expansive in its reach.

Pre-orders help the book gain notice on release day. So if you are so inclined and want to read the book, I was hoping you could pre-order it to give it that little extra boost. Below are some links to help you find some outlets.

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Now back to our scheduled program …

In the Marginal Revolution blog, Tyler Cowen pointed us to an interesting new app from mathematics professor, Po-Shen Loh of Carnegie Mellon University. The app, NOVID, can be most easily understood from this video.

This is not just an exposure notification app (although it can do that). Those apps keep track of people you have had contact with (without revealing them of course) and if one should test positive for Covid-19, you will get a notification to get a test yourself. In other words, it is a notification that you have been exposed. In that case, your best option is to obtain a test yourself. Critically, it is not what you would really want which was to avoid getting exposed in the first place.

The principle behind the NOVID app is different. What it does is keep track of your contacts and builds a picture of people you interact with closely. (This is what you want to know — it is basically telling you why you can’t necessarily just have one friend because you don’t know who they have contact with). Then if someone, somewhere tests positive, so long as they and others have the app, of course, then you will get a notification of how ‘far away’ that exposure was; in terms of the degree of separation. As Lo told Cowen:

Suddenly, the main purpose of the intervention is no longer to protect others from you (quarantining after being exposed). Instead, it is to directly protect you from others, because that early warning of approaching COVID lets you know it’s a good time to wear a better mask, or to be more vigilant about distancing, because the situation is getting hot. This appeals to self-protection instincts instead of altruistic instincts. Since this app is already in deployment, we know anecdotally, for example, of a person who installed the app because his kid was going to a university that was using the app. Why? So that he could be alerted in case COVID started spreading his way from the university via his kid.

This gives you the opportunity to prepare by managing your contact budget more carefully or by pulling out that N95 mask you have been saving for a special occasion. I installed the app, which was easy enough but I have to wait for others to do the same for it to really work.

Download the Novid app

Interestingly, the app also comes with the ability to roll it out in a ‘community,’ say, a school or a workplace. This could be a critical early warning system for those places to take extra care. And if anyone ever gets serious about rapid testing, this could drive information even further. Georgia Tech did just that to assist in their reopening.

I should add here that this is just the type of innovation our program at the Creative Destruction Lab through its Recovery stream is looking to help. So if you are an innovator in this space, please consider applying.

What did I miss?