Covid-19 and the Challenge of Total Collaboration

02/09/2020 15

Among all the actions that are being taken to stop the expansion of the covid19, one in which technology can be a great ally, is the design of mobile applications that allow this tracking in a much simpler way. This idea arose at the beginning of the year as a result of the success obtained with similar applications in countries such as Singapore, which provided very good results.

Designing a mobile application is not a complex task, but the different operating systems (Android and iOS) from Google and Apple respectively have to be taken into account. The application has to have a unique interface for communication via bluetooth and implement, as far as possible, the encryption techniques necessary to ensure the privacy of user data.

Given the global situation, Google and Apple began to collaborate at the beginning of February to develop a joint interface, and by the end of May the API was already available. This allowed interoperability between devices, which is an unprecedented collaboration milestone. Apple and Google’s technology is based precisely on the BLE protocol (Bluetooth Low Energy) technique created in 2006.

When two users wearing their bluetooth enabled smartphones and are in close proximity for a period of time (about 15 minutes), they exchange information known as a beacon. These beacons from both mobiles are stored in a history of the mobiles that have been in contact. In this way, people who test positive in covid-19 will be able to enter this information in the app, being able to alert the rest of the people with whom they had contact.

In Europe, the decentralized model has been adopted for the design of these apps, because of the advantages it offers in terms of better protection of privacy. The European applications are based on the DP-3T protocol and are supported by Google and Apple technologies.

The DP-3T protocol works on the basis of ephemeral IDs, semi-random rotary chains that identify mobile devices. When two mobiles meet, they exchange these identifiers in a contact register.

When we talk about decentralized applications, this means that the only data that is stored is on the user’s phone, and it is encrypted data that will not be used, unless the person in question tests positive by covid-19. The rest of the mobiles that have been in contact with that person will receive a message alerting them that a person they have been in contact with will not say who or when, has tested positive.

Each country is developing its own application and this may represent a challenge for the European Union of interoperability between applications. Ideally, each country’s app should not stop working and there should be no need to download another country’s app. In principle, this interoperability will be valid in those countries that have opted for the decentralized model.

Corona Warn, a German application launched in June, warns users if they are within 3 meters of a positive person. The app will tell the Germans the risk of infection, information that only the user can access, and for a citizen to register that he has tested positive, he will have to scan a QR code that appears on the test result.

Last August, adoption reached 16.4 million users in a country of 83 million inhabitants. There is still a long way to go, but today it is proving to be a key aid in the fight against expansion, as acknowledged by Robert Koch, the German epidemiology institute.

In Spain, Radar Covid was tested during the month of July in La Gomera. Waves of 300 infections were made to see the effectiveness of the application. According to the Secretary of State for IA, 61% of the people who were informed of the fictitious infection reached the end of the process, notifying the authorities and complying with the quarantine.

Additionally, the application doubles in detection results to manual tracking. It has been able to register 6.4 close contacts of risk against the 3.5 detected by the manual system. It has also shortened reaction times to less than 24 hours.

Having chosen the decentralized model, it is the most respectful of privacy. For the moment, the Secretary of State has not set a target for downloads. No false positives have been detected in the pilot, and this is something that has happened in similar applications. One of the cases may be that of having two people separated by a wall, the app in this case would generate a false positive.

The app will certainly not solve all the problems of covid19 expansion, as many more actions are needed, but there is no doubt that once again, technology is helping to solve contact identification much more effectively. The drawing up of these contacts does not depend only on the application, but also requires an infrastructure to detect and interview each positive case, as well as the availability to carry out tests quickly enough.

The application will be launched in September in all of the autonomous communities and the level of adoption will be key to its usefulness throughout Spain. Technology can be an extraordinary enabler, but it is in the hands of people to contribute to its massive use, and more so in a country with 17 autonomous communities, where collaboration will be key.

Technology is helping to solve contact identification much more effectively.