Our promised COVID-19 contact-tracing apps are finally here

The UK government’s contact-tracing app has yet to be seen, but Scotland has launched this week.

Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images

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Contact-tracing apps have been seen by successive governments as an important tool to fight spread COVID-19, But we have yet to release many of them to the public.

On Thursday morning I woke up to find a COVID-19 contact-detecting app, which was finally available for me to download. Except for the app I was downloading, I was not initially anticipated.

Back in March, as the world was waking up to the realities of coronovirus and starting to go into lockdown, the government in Britain, where I live, boasted that it had already started working on a contact-tracing app Which was ready till May. Spoiler Alert: It was not. And it’s still not ready, and I’ve ended up using a different solution altogether.

Contact tracing is a long-established form of detection that can contact someone who has recently been asked by someone else in contact with them for a diagnosis. The digital version is effectively similar to the traditional approach, but instead of health professionals asking questions, your phone keeps an anonymous record of those with whom you’ve crossed paths using Bluetooth and a dedicated app, and it gives you Tells if you need to get a test.

From the beginning, the UK government placed its app at the center of its track and trace strategy. Officials said the application would be necessary to deal with the spread of COVID-19 and reopen the economy.

Initially the UK went with a centralized model for its app, which meant that all data collected through the app would be uploaded and processed by a central database. This will allow the collection of a certain amount of public health data, as opposed to a decentralized model that involves data stored on people’s personal devices and is processed completely anonymously only when necessary.

Privacy experts warned the government, and other governments working on similar projects, that the centralized model was a data privacy nightmare and that people might not trust the app, resulting in them not downloading and using it. Meanwhile, tech experts pointed out a major flaw in the centralized approach: Apple’s rules meant that data collected in the background (how digital contact tracing works) via Bluetooth could not be uploaded to a centralized database.

Effectively, they were saying that the app the UK government was building would not work properly on iPhones.

But even when Apple and Google released a protocol to help people build decentralized contact-tracing applications that would work properly over the phone, the UK did not change its approach. It stated that Apple and Google would slow it down, and it went ahead with the tests and promised that its software would be available to members of the public within weeks.

It took until mid-June for the government to publicly recognize that its effort had failed and the app’s arrival was not imminent. It eventually ceased to use the decentralized model of Apple and Google, and said the app would be available later in the year, probably towards the end of winter.

Contact-tracing apps in the wild

Meanwhile, other countries were building their own contact-tracing applications, including Ireland, which commissioned local software company Nearform to work with it. The company started working on tracing back in March, initially focusing on building a centralized app as well, but stopped using Google and Apple’s service as soon as it became available.

Both the company and the Irish Health Authority quickly saw the benefits of moving to a decentralized model supported by Apple and Google, even if it meant collecting less data to work with epidemiologists, according to Coleman Hurt, the technical director of Nearform Was.

Apple and Google’s platforms solved the privacy issue and the iPhone issue, and also meant that the app would be properly calibrated for all Android phones. In an interview, Harte said, “iOS devices are all very compatible, because it’s the same hardware.” “But from Android’s perspective, there are actually thousands of combinations of OS versions and hardware versions, so Google took that problem.”

Initially adopting a centralized approach, Apple and Google’s model changes were not very difficult. “From a technical standpoint, it meant that we threw out a few thousand lines of code.” “We were happy enough to do it, because you could see upside down where we would end up.”

The App for Ireland was up and running in early July, and Nearform’s application for Northern Ireland was available by the end of that month. As the virus has progressed, the developed nations of the UK – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – have increasingly taken COVID-19 into their own hands. Northern Ireland was the first to find its own app rather than rely on the UK government’s effort, but it was not the last.


A look at Scotland’s contact-tracing app.

Screenshot by Katie Collins / CNET

This week the App of the Nearform went live in Scotland, where I am based. The application was quick to download and included an equally quick and simple setup process. It now happily ticks in the background on my phone. If I cross the path with someone who later finds out the COVID, it will alert me when that person uploads their positive-test code.

Some people are worried that the app running in the background will drain Phone battery Faster than usual, but I haven’t noticed any problems with it in the first 36 hours that I’m using the app.

Next, Nearform’s app is scheduled to arrive in Pennsylvania and Delaware, which will be announced in a few more US states soon.

For Ireland and Northern Ireland, it was important for their apps to be interoperable, Hurt said, as many people cross-border back and forth every day. The same is likely to be true of US states.

Contact-tracing applications do not necessarily have to be made interoperable by nearforms, Hurt explained. By the time apps are built on top of Apple and Google’s service, “technically it becomes a lot more straightforward” to work together.

According to Herton, during the coronovirus crisis, different app-making teams in different countries are in close communication to share what works and what they don’t. Nearform has now open-sourced its software and is working closely with the Linux Foundation Public Health to ensure that people who need it are able to access it.

And Britain raced to build that app, and promised that it would be the first available? The government has still not released it publicly. According to an announcement on Friday, people living in England and Wales will be able to download it on 24 September.

“My team has worked tirelessly to develop the new NHS COVID-19 app and we are incredibly grateful to all the residents of the Isle of Wight, London Borough of Newham, NHS Volunteer Responders and the team that accompanies us; For learning and insight; NHS Kovid-19 App managing director Simon Thompson said in a statement, “Whatever it is today made it the app.”

Are they working

One of the early concerns about contact-tracing apps was how effective they really were, and it was still too early to say for sure. To really determine their effect, experts will only need to conduct long-term studies over the course of a few months.

Conventional knowledge has already shifted away from apps being a solution to a tool being used to enhance a broader contact-tracing strategy. “Manual contact tracing is really the piece that drives everything,” Hurt said.

Some contact-tracing apps, such as Norway’s effort, have already closed due to privacy issues. But Hurt says Nearform’s app is a good start.

With over one million downloads within the first 36 hours, the company considered the launch of the Ireland app a success. Within days people were testing positive and uploading random IDs, and other users were being alerted as a result of those uploads.

On Friday, Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, thanked over 700,000 people who had already downloaded the Protect-Scott app in the first 24 hours. Getting as many citizens on board as possible is a priority for governments, because the more people use apps, the more effective they will be.

There are still early days to determine whether digital contact tracing will play a long-term role in tracking the spread of diseases. But more apps are coming in the short term. Keep in mind to see if your state or country is bringing a contact-tracing app where you live soon, so you can help you play your part in controlling the epidemic – but, as always, privacy Try to read the policy first.

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