Apr 23 2020

Names Matter: Exposure Alerting vs. Digital Contact Tracing

Most people, unless you work either for government or an infectious disease “organization” (non-profit, hospital, health care system) probably had not heard the phrase “contact tracing” until a month or so ago.

I now hear and see the phrase “contact tracing” everywhere.

About a month ago, as I started working on Covid-related stuff, the phrase came up regularly on the private side as a partial solution to the problem of “opening things back up.” It was often phrased as “it will be hard to open anything up until we have enough testing and contact tracing.”

For about a week, I couldn’t figure out why many of the people I was interacting with seemed to dismiss my ideas and concerns about contact tracing. Then, in a conversation, someone in government explained what the government’s historical view of contact tracing was, which is a well-defined and regularly executed completely manual process.

A giant lightbulb went off in my brain as I realized two things were happening. A bunch of people who were hearing the phrase “contact tracing” figured “yup – we’ve got that under control” (meaning they already had a manual contact tracing effort in place or about to be launched). The rest were thinking “the tech people want to automate and digitize the manual contact tracing activity – that’ll never work and it’ll create huge security and data privacy issues.”

So, I, along with everyone I am working with, started calling it “Digital Contact Tracing.” That helped some, especially as we described its relationship to Manual Contact Tracing. But, there was still too much explanation of Manual Contact Tracing vs. Digital Contact Tracing. And, confused continued to abound.

The phrase “Digital Contact Tracing” started evolving. The ACLU wrote a great white paper titled Principles for Technology-Assisted-Contact-Tracing which generated a clever acronym (TACT). I also saw the phrase “Digital Contact Tracing and Alerting” being used.

Yesterday, Harper Reed put up a short post titled Digital Contact Tracing and Alerting vs Exposure Alerting that lays out the history of the concept and renames it “Exposure Alerting.”

Exposure Alerting is the correct phrase for Digital Contact Tracing. It is clearly additive to Manual Contact Tracing (or simply Contact Tracing as most of the non-technical world refers to it.)

So, from here on out, I think we should call this activity Exposure Alerting. I think we would have saved a lot of time and energy if we had come up with the right name from the beginning. But, since this is going to be with us for a very long time, let’s start now.