Saturday, 21 March 2020

The Tracers

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Amid the pub 🍻closures, panic buying and social distancing, there was some recent interesting Covid-19 tech news from Singapore. A new app (available to anyone now with a Singapore phone number, on the Appstore it appears), called ‘TraceTogether’, was launched yesterday (20/03/2020).

It was developed by the Singapore Government Technology Agency (GovTech) in collaboration with its Ministry Of Health over the past eight weeks. The app just requires Bluetooth to be enabled. At the time of writing, I am aware of a website/app in Spain that allows citizens to log to the health services they have self-diagnosed. Also some similar things starting in Germany.

The app works by exchanging short-distance Bluetooth signals between phones to detect other users of the app who are in close proximity. Current MOH guidelines define close proximity as two metres apart, or up to five metres, for 30 minutes.

TraceTogether APP QR Code
Records of these encounters will be stored locally in the users’ phones and will not be sent to the authorities. Users will only be asked to share these records when contacted by MOH as part of Coronavirus contact tracing investigations. If they refuse, they may be prosecuted under the Infectious Diseases Act.

Currently, contact tracing relies on the memory of interviewees. However, there have been instances when interviewees could not remember all their contacts or did not have information about people they had been in contact with.

The new app will not replace ongoing contact tracing efforts, but it will facilitate the process, enabling contact tracers to inform users who are close contacts of COVID-19 cases "more quickly".

This sounds like a great idea and probably would work well in a society, such as Singapore where the state rules firmly and community is relatively compliant. If utilised in the UK, EU, USA, Australia or other countries, it could significantly help with identification of new virus clusters. However, as has been seen, making use optional (like restricting yourself going to the pub), does not work, its take up would probably need to be mandatory in the UK, to actually make a difference.

Dr Janil Puthucheary, Minister-in-charge of GovTech, said: "The process of contact tracing starts with a recall … and that is the only thing that this app intervenes with. It means that poor memory will no longer slow down the process of contact tracing”. "In contact tracing process, time matters,” he added, noting that contact tracing remains a key part of the country’s strategy to limit local transmission of COVID-19 and this app will augment the speed at which that occurs.

“The faster the contact tracing process can be initiated and can identify the people at risk, the faster we can intervene and impose quarantine if necessary and limit spread locally," he told reporters at a press conference on Friday. Authorities hope to use the app to establish 25 per cent to 50 per cent of these close contacts.

Around data protection and GDPR worries, this app is opt-in. The authorities stressed that the use of the app is voluntary and that users have to give "explicit consent" to participate in TraceTogether. This consent can be withdrawn anytime, according to GovTech.

The app also has several layers of security and privacy safeguards in place. For example, users will submit only their mobile numbers after downloading the app. Each phone will then be assigned a user ID.

This user ID is then used to generate temporary IDs at regular intervals. It is this temporary ID that is exchanged between the phones of TraceTogether users. Such regular generation of temporary IDs protect users from eavesdropping and tracking overtime by malicious actors, according to GovTech.

It remains to be seen if this idea can be adapted for use quickly here in the UK and EU, to assist with the controlled spread of Covid-19 , or in fact there is any interest from Westminster, in pursuing it. I for one, feel that we should be using every means available of protecting wider society and controlling the spread of this dangerous virus. If tech can help, then for goodness sake, lets bring it on and give it a try.

Read the full article from Channel News Asia, here.

Related Post: Covid-19, is it changing the way your organisation measures staff contribution and throughput?


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Johnny Marr – The TracersJohnny Marr – The Tracers.
(c) Tony Smith, Acutance Consulting 07854-655009

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