In the fight to stop COVID-19, contact tracing is considered a key tool to helping contain the spread. Contact tracing involves working backward to identify people who may have been in contact with a sick patient, then notifying those at risk of transmission so they can isolate and get tested. But can that painstaking process get a boost from smartphones?
Tarun Nimmagadda of Austin-based Mutual Mobile recruited more than 500 volunteers to create an app called CoronaTrace. It would use Bluetooth technology to track in-person encounters. If someone tests positive for COVID-19, the app can help determine who else may have been in close contact and let them know.
“We are able to anonymously, keeping your identity completely private, notify every iPhone and Android that came into contact with you for more than five minutes in the last 14 days,” Nimmagadda said.
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Nimmagadda said the alerts would offer limited information about the potential exposure in order to avoid revealing a patient’s identity.
“We’re not going to tell you where that happened or exactly what time that happened,” explained Nimmagadda.
Nimmagadda insists the app does not collect names, phone numbers or e-mail addresses. Users voluntarily report test results, which means the app has to convince people to participate.
“A big part of the hope is that citizens would consider it their civic responsibility to report that they are positive,” Nimmagadda said.
“The challenge of making an app like this is to create a level of trust among the citizens that we’re not some big tech company,” Nimmagadda continued. “We’re not going to use this data to sell advertising or anything else. The only thing that we’re going to do with this is to send out those notifications.”
But there are concerns the notifications would lead to false positives. Even if someone has been around a COVID-19 patient, the app can’t account for whether the contact would have lead to a transmission. If there are too many false positives, users may become apathetic and ignore alerts.
“It’s so important that you don’t receive a lot of notifications, but that every notification that you do receive is something that is actionable,” Nimmagadda said.
The makers of the app say they don’t believe it can serve as a replacement for traditional contact tracing or robust testing. Rather, it could be a tool to enhance the speed and scale of tracing during an outbreak.
CoronaTrace was initially built to use GPS to help track users, but Google and Apple have said they don’t want to use GPS – pointing to privacy concerns.
Nimmagadda said the creators are now working on a version that primarily relies on Bluetooth technology. The app makers also hope to partner with state health officials. Nimmagadda expects the app would be ready in four to six weeks and made available to users for free.
“It’s been an overwhelming volunteer effort, none of us get paid to do this,” said Nimmagadda.
“There’s an immediate problem and crisis and an opportunity to help other people,” he added. “When we put it all together, I had no choice but to do this.”