Spector sees this current version of the Zoe app as a giant civic science project. Users can sign up for various surveys, which involve answering questions via the app. Current studies include studies of the intestinal microbiome, early signs of dementia, and the role of the immune system in heart disease. Before the pandemic, it would be nearly impossible to recruit hundreds of thousands of people for a study, but the Zoe app is now a huge potential resource for new research. “I would love to see what happens when 100,000 people skip breakfast for two weeks,” Spector says.
Individuals who reported Covid symptoms are not automatically included in these new studies. About 800,000 people have agreed to track their health beyond Covid through the Zoe app, while a smaller proportion of people have signed up for specific trials. But it’s hard to imagine these huge enrollment numbers without the app playing such a prominent role during the pandemic.
“These emergencies become catalysts and create a very unique environment,” said Angeliki Kerasidou, an ethics professor at the University of Oxford. “Something we need to think a little more carefully about is how we use these situations and what we do with them.”
There is also a question about the boundary between providing care and conducting research, Kerasidou says. At the height of the pandemic, National Health Services in Wales and Scotland instructed people to track their symptoms through the Zoe app. Tracking Covid symptoms that way might have seemed like the socially responsible thing to do, but now that the app’s emphasis is on broader health tracking and clinical trials, should people then feel the same obligation to participate?
The German app Luca is undergoing an even more dramatic about-face. By the spring of 2021, 13 German states had signed contact tracing contracts with the app worth a total of € 21.3 million ($ 22.4 million). Back then, people used the app to check in at restaurants or other businesses by scanning a QR code. If they crossed paths with someone who was tested positive for the virus shortly after, the app would ask them to isolate themselves.
But as Germany’s vaccination rates improved, government contracts began to evaporate. In response, Luca’s CEO, Patrick Hennig, looked around for a new business model. In February 2022, Luca revealed it would turn into a payment app, with its new payment feature launched in early June.
This was a bold business decision in notoriously cash-friendly Germany. About 46 percent of Germans still prefer to spend cash, according to a 2021 examination by the British polling company YouGov, compared to just over 20 per cent in the UK. But Hennig hopes to change entrenched habits by leveraging the Luca brand – and the user base of 40 million registered people – that the company has built through the pandemic.
The idea is that people can use Luca as an alternative to card terminals. At the end of a meal, restaurant guests scan a QR code that shows them their bill and enables them to pay via the Luca app using either Apple Pay or their card information. Hennig tries to encourage restaurants to use its system by undercutting the 1-3 percent fee they are usually charged for using a card terminal. Right now, Luca is free for restaurants and shops to use, but that will shift to a 0.5 percent fee by the end of the year, Hennig says. Over 1,000 restaurants and shops have so far signed up.