Commentary: Contact tracing apps can learn a trick or two from fitness trackers

GLASGOW: Contact tracing has long been used in response to disease outbreaks. It is simply the idea of asking an infected person who they have been in contact with and then notifying the people in question to try and control the spread of the disease.

Some countries have been employing this during the current crisis. The World Health Organization has consistently said that “tracing every contact must be the backbone of the response in every country”.

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Governments around the world are also either deploying or developing digital versions of contact tracing, using smartphones and Bluetooth to keep track of who an infected person has encountered.

READ: Commentary: Contact tracing holds key to eliminating COVID-19 in post-lockdown New Zealand

South Korea was one of the first, and its BlueTrace scheme is seen as one key reason why its infection rates have stayed under control.

France, Germany, the UK and the Netherlands are among those that are now creating apps of their own.

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We are also seeing international efforts to build secure standards that will preserve users privacy and allow these systems to talk to one another. This includes the Swiss-led DP-3T project and a joint effort by Google and Apple.

READ: COVID-19: How smartphone apps can help with contact tracing

DIGITAL DIFFICULTIES

Digital contact tracing is certainly not perfect. Users will need a smartphone capable of running the Bluetooth Low Energy system. The Financial Times reckons that around 2 billion phones wont be compatible.

Worse, digital contact tracing can only help where the people interacting are both using the system.

Shoppers provide their identification cards for contact tracing purposes at NEX shopping mall, Apr 30, 2020.

Researchers calculate that around 56 per cent of the population would need to use an app for it to be successful – thats four in five smartphone users.

Yet many people have reasonable privacy concerns around how their data will be used, and they worry this could become permanent.

In Australia, for example, the government has struggled to convince even its own MPs that its proposed app will be private enough.

READ: Australians rush to download COVID-19 contact tracing app

In the UK, recent survey data provides room for cautious optimism: 65 per cent of people agree with using smartphones for contact tracing. Among those 55 to 75 years old, support is nearing 73 per cent, while for those 18 to 34, it is 59 per cent.

Whether this will be impacted by the UKs likely decision to build a centralised database of contact events remains to be seen.

Even then, there is another major issue. Not everyone agrees that digital contact tracing is effective against diseases – or how well it will work against COVID-19, where a long time can pass before people show symptoms and get tested.

Widespread testing will still be needed, and digital contact tracing wont prevent everyone from being infected.

READ: Commentary: Why Singapore is preparing to tap the brakes to slow COVID-19 spread

SOCIAL DISTANCING IS KEY

So even as more countries apps go live, social distancing will continue to be the main way for people to protect themselves for the time being.

A social distancing sign sprayed on the pavement is seen at a bus stop at Victoria Station, central London on Apr 17, 2020. (Photo: Tolga AKMEN / AFP)

The UK guidance asks people to stay more than two metres away from those they encounter outside, and to avoid non-essential public transport journeys and other social gatherings.

Maintaining such restrictions will be a challenge as lockdowns are lifted, since social distancing goes against human instinct.

One piece of research also found that an essential factor in people being willing to social distance was if they thought they could do it; the longer people are expected to stick to the coronavirus guidelines, the more they will probably feel they cant keep doing it.

The research shows that people dont necessarily social distance, despite their best intentions. In the words of Chris Whitty, the UK chief medical adviser, “enthusiasm at some point lags”.

READ: Commentary: Lockdown and isolation sound simple – but keeping people at home is no easy answer

READ: Commentary: Social distancing works, even if it doesn't immediately show results

MAKING CONTACT TRACING MORE EFFECTIVE

Contact tracing apps will help here, but there is a way of making them more effective that seems to have been overlooked.

These apps work by storing the Bluetooth identifier being transmitted from every phone they encounter. The received signal strength will also be stored to give a rough approximation of distance, though this varies between phones so isnt hugely accurate.

On a regular basis, the app will fetch the identifiers of all people in the country who have tested positive for COVID-19 or are at very high risk of having been infected.

It will then check back and see if its user has previously encountered any of these identifiers, and trigger a warning message or phone call that tells the user to get tested or take other steps.

This will be peoples only guide to how well they are successfully social-distancing – apart from developing symptoms.

(Photo: Unsplash)

To make this better, we could add a feature that works in a similar way to how fitness tracking appRead More – Source