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To Beat COVID-19, We Need To Restore Public Trust in Tech

by M&Co. Staff

Technology companies are developing “contact tracing” applications that combine Bluetooth and GPS to create a proxy public health detective service. As lockdowns ease, these apps will track the rate of infection, aimed at preventing a second wave of COVID-19.

Before rolling out this technology, companies should keep in mind that 81 percent of Americans are concerned with how their data is collected and 69 percent do not have confidence in tech companies’ ability to manage their data responsibly, according to a Pew Research poll from November 2019.

If the public trust in technology is going to grow, especially among companies handling their data for tracing apps, we need to do a better job in reassuring the public that this is what is needed. We need to ensure that people’s vote of confidence is not betrayed when using their personal information.

For starters, companies should consider the following in their interactions with consumers as they seek to collect and utilize their personal data.

Institutionalize transparency

Being transparent builds consumers’ trust in companies. To establish a culture that is transparent and responsive to privacy concerns, companies should first conduct research on consumers’ preferences, engage with employees and stakeholders, and determine an appropriate level of business transparency. From the information gathered, companies can create a transparency code of conduct focused on establishing facts, demonstrating responsibility, and earning credibility. Companies should also develop mechanisms to evaluate and retool their transparency policies as needed. That way, the company’s code of conduct becomes a reflection of what consumers expect to know and get when they are giving away their personal information.

The software company Buffer adopted an unconventional policy of publishing everything from company emails to salaries. That also sets a “transparency standard” for its employees who are now acutely aware that the way they interact with and handle data is open to public scrutiny. Although there is no single way to institutionalize transparency and each technology company must find its own solutions, this example demonstrates how transparency can begin to earn public trust if applied consistently and across the board.

Make data policies accessible to the public

Too often, tech companies create jargon-filled materials for their consumers to relay how data is being used, collected, and transmitted. These policies should be created in a way that is accessible and understood by an average consumer.

To create simpler data policies, companies should start with privacy policies, as this is often is a consumer’s first point of contact with a company asking to collect data. An easily understandable privacy policy coveys to the user what information they are being asked to share and for what purpose. Companies can get creative with infographics, videos, and social media to covey what consumers need to know in a more engaging format.

As an example, the Metadistretti e-monitor, a device that tracks recovering cardiac patients, comes with information about how data is collected, where it is disseminated, and how it is through a user-friendly app. This consumer-centered approach in technology is key when cultivating brand trust.

Educate about the importance of data

Consumers are typically unaware as to why data is being collected; therefore, educating the public about the value of data collection can be a powerful mechanism for building public trust. IBM, for example, has branded its Watson technology as a societal value-add. Watson analyzes health data to identify improvements in health care delivery, and IBM is also considered as one of the most ethical corporations in the world.

In educating the public about the importance of data, companies can begin by connecting the business aspects of data collection to how data can be used for social good. Companies should consider making a commitment to contributing to social good, not only to the benefit of their shareholders and investors but also because it is the right thing to do. A “data for good” approach through partnerships with non-profits and corporate social responsibility campaigns, for example, show the public how much untapped opportunity there is with data analysis. Now is the time for tech companies to demonstrate how data can be used as a part of the pandemic response.

To help governments fight the coronavirus pandemic, many people will opt-in to give tech companies their data for the greater good. Others will not. Tech companies should think about how to prove themselves trustworthy custodians of consumer data. Investing in transparency, coherent data policies and education will begin to build the public trust in tech that we all need to continue to continue to maximize the benefits of data collection and analytics beyond fighting the coronavirus pandemic.