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I woke up Thursday morning to find that a COVID-19 contact tracking app was finally available for download. Except that the app I downloaded wasn’t what I was initially expecting.
Back in March, when the world was waking up to the realities of the coronavirus and starting to lock down, the government in the UK, where I live, said they had already started work on a contact tracking app, which would be ready by May. Spoiler alert: It wasn’t. And it’s still not done, and I ended up using a different solution.
Contact tracing is a long-established way of finding out who may have been exposed to an illness by asking someone with a diagnosis who they’ve had recent contact with. The digital version is practically the same as the traditional approach, but instead of having health professionals ask questions, your phone anonymously records the people you’ve crossed with via bluetooth and a dedicated app and lets you know if you need to Get test.
From the start, the UK government put its app at the heart of its track and trace strategy. The app would be vital in fighting the spread of COVID-19 and reopening the economy in due course.
Initially, the UK opted for a centralized model for its app, which meant that all data collected through the app was uploaded to and processed by a central database. This would allow a certain amount of public health data to be collected, as opposed to a decentralized model where data is stored on people’s personal devices and processed completely anonymously only when needed.
Privacy experts warned the government and other governments working on similar projects that the centralized model was a nightmare for privacy and that users might not trust the app, which would result in them not downloading and using it. Meanwhile, technical experts pointed to an even bigger flaw in the centralized approach: due to Apple’s rules for apps, background data collected via Bluetooth (an essential part of how digital contact tracking works) could not be uploaded to a centralized database.
In fact, they said the app that the UK government was building wouldn’t work properly on iPhones.
But even when Apple and Google jointly released a protocol that would allow people to create decentralized contact tracking apps that would work properly on phones, the UK hasn’t changed its approach. It was said that Apple and Google were slowing it down, and trials were being made, promising that its software would be available to the public within a few weeks.
It was not until mid-June that the government publicly realized that their attempt had failed and that the app was not imminent. It eventually switched to the decentralized model from Apple and Google, and said the app would be available later in the year, maybe even winter.
Contact tracking apps in the wild
In the meantime, other countries were building their own contact tracking apps, including Ireland, which local software company NearForm hired to do it. The company had already started working on contact tracing back in March. Initially, it also focused on creating a centralized app. However, once availability became available, it switched to using the service provided by Google and Apple.
According to NearForm Technical Director Colm Harte, both the company and the Irish health authority were quick to see the benefits of having a decentralized model supported by Apple and Google, although it meant less data had to be collected for epidemiologists.
The platform of Apple and Google solved the privacy problem and the iPhone problem. Also, it meant that the app was properly calibrated for all Android phones. “iOS devices are all pretty consistent because they are the same hardware,” said Harte in an interview. “But from an Android perspective, there are literally tens of thousands of combinations of operating system versions and hardware versions, so Google has taken on this problem.”
Switching to the Apple and Google model after an initially centralized approach is not too difficult, added Harte. “Technically, that meant we might have thrown away a few thousand lines of code,” he said. “We were lucky enough to do it because you could see where we were going to end up.”
The Irish app was operational in early July and the Nearform application for Northern Ireland was available by the end of the month. As the virus has progressed, the decentralized states of the United Kingdom – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – have increasingly taken control of COVID-19 into their own hands. Northern Ireland was the first country to find its own app instead of relying on the efforts of the UK government, but it wasn’t the last.
This week, NearForm’s app went live in Scotland, where I am based. The app was quick to download and just as quick and easy to set up. It’s now ticking happily in the background on my phone. When I cross with someone who is later diagnosed with COVID, I will be notified when that person uploads their positive test code.
Some people are concerned that the app that is running in the background is draining them Phone battery faster than usual, but I didn’t notice any issues with it in the first 36 hours of using the app.
Next, the NearForm app will hit Pennsylvania and Delaware. Additional US states will be announced shortly.
It was important for Ireland and Northern Ireland to have their apps interoperable, Harte said, as so many people walk back and forth across the border every day. The same should apply to US states.
Contact tracing apps don’t necessarily have to be built by NearForm to be interoperable, Harte explained. As long as apps are based on the service provided by Apple and Google, it is “technically much easier” to let them work together.
Throughout the coronavirus crisis, according to Harte, teams developing different apps in different countries have been in close communication to share what works and what doesn’t. NearForm has now deployed its software as an open source solution and is working closely with Linux Foundation Public Health to ensure that those who need it can access it.
And this app that Britain built and promised to be one of the first to be available? The government has still not released it publicly. People who live in England and Wales will be able to download it on Friday September 24th, according to an announcement.
“My team has worked tirelessly to develop the new NHS COVID-19 app and we are incredibly grateful to all of the residents of the Isle of Wight, Newham, London, the NHS volunteer workers and the team that went before us made the app what it is today, “NHS COVID-19 app executive director Simon Thompson said in a statement.
Are they working?
One of the first concerns about contact tracking apps was how effective they would actually turn out to be, and it’s too early to say for sure. To really determine their effects, experts need to study them over the long term rather than just months.
Conventional wisdom has already shifted from apps as a solution to a tool that can be used to extend a broader contact tracking strategy. “The manual contact tracing is actually the part that drives everything,” said Harte.
Some contact tracking apps, such as Norway’s efforts, have already been shut down due to privacy concerns. According to Harte, the NearForm app has got off to a good start.
With over a million downloads in the first 36 hours, the company viewed the launch of the Ireland app as a success. Within a few days, positive tests were run and random IDs were uploaded, and other users were notified of these uploads.
On Friday, Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, thanked the more than 700,000 people who had downloaded the Protect Scot app in its first 24 hours. Getting as many citizens on board as possible is a priority for governments because the more people use the apps, the more effective they become.