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Hackernoon logoHow Can Contact-Tracing Apps Could Help Limit The Spread Of COVID-19 by@asim

How Can Contact-Tracing Apps Could Help Limit The Spread Of COVID-19

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@asimAsim Rais Siddiqui

Co-founder and CTO of Tekrevol LLC

At the time of writing this article, the total number of COVID-19 cases stands at the 858,892 mark, with more than 40,000 deaths recorded worldwide.

And as everyone knows, that since there is no vaccine for treating this virus, the only way to contain is to practice social distancing and ensuring that we know who got infected and who did they meet and infect further down the line, which is called contact tracing.

Through contact tracing, we can stop the spread of the virus by knowing who exactly is to be prioritized for testing and ensuring that they are quarantined before they spread the virus any further.

In this article, we are going to look into how technology, powered by Bluetooth for contact tracing, can be used to beat this pandemic. We are going to take a deep dive into contact tracing mobile apps for COVID-19.

What is COVID-19?

COVID-19 is a respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. It is part of the coronaviruses family that is known to cause disease within animals. Viruses from within the coronavirus family are known to jump from animals to humans and often result in cold-like symptoms for carriers.

While COVID-19 is closely related to Sars, which resulted in nearly 800 deaths between 2002 and 2003 and Mers, which since its initial emergence in 2012, has led to nearly 900 deaths, it is a virus that is much harder to fight.

Unlike Sars and Mers, which had severe symptoms to carriers, COVID-19 is known to cause mild infection within 80% cases, with a likelihood of carriers remaining asymptomatic.

The Global Impact of Coronavirus

At the time of writing, the 8 most-affected countries by the Coronavirus Pandemic of 2019-20 are the USA, Italy, Spain, China, Germany, France, Iran, and the UK based on the figures from worldometers.

As a result of this spread, lockdowns have become a common practice, businesses have either closed operations or shifted to remote operations, and for a lot of daily wage earners, life has come to a stand-still.

As such, leading experts across the globe have advised a number of measures for people to take, to flatten the curve of the coronavirus spread.

Figure 1 Image taken from Livescience.com

These measures include:

• Social Distancing

• Rigorous handwashing with soap for at least 20 minutes

• Self-isolation and staying at home.

These are some advice that can help people limit their chances of exposure to the Coronavirus if applied on an individual level.

Other than this. Scientists are working on developing a cure, while research into possible serum therapy is also ongoing in different parts of the world.

So how can mobile app development companies contribute to helping mitigate the spread for COVID-10, and flattening the curve?

Well, Contact tracing apps are emerging as one of the best preventive measures that are being developed around the globe in order to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Let’s take a look at what Contact Tracing is, and how contact tracing app development can help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

What is Contact Tracing

Contact tracing is the process of identifying potential people at threat of contracting COVID-19 as a result of come in contact with or being in the close proximity of an infected patient.

One of the best ways governments can fight COVID-19 is to identify, locate, test, and isolate people who have come into close contact or proximity of a coronavirus carrier.

There are manual ways to do so, by looking into the history of a patient once they’ve been tested positive. You can isolate them and ask them for their details and inform the people through news or local authorities. But that will take up a significant amount of manpower, time, and effort. This can be a complicated process and relies too much on the memory of the patient itself.

But, contact tracing can be automated using modern technology and mobile app development.


What is A Contact Tracing App and How Can Contact Tracing Apps Fight COVID-19?

A contact tracing app is a digital tool that helps governments automate the contact tracing process. This app is powered by Bluetooth that helps mobile devices track nearby phones (without location tracking), keeps local logs of those contacts, and only uploads them to the Ministry of Health when the user chooses/consents, presumably after a diagnosis, so those contacts can be alerted.

When someone tests positive for COVID-19 and is marked in the system, the system allows the government to trace all the users to whom this carrier might have made contact with by time stamps.

A record of their geographical movements is shared with the healthcare officials, such as traveling routes of the past 14 days and their commute routes. Additionally, other phone owners who came close to the infected person, based on their commute maps, residence, and travel history, receive a push notification via their mobile app regarding the potential threat of them being exposed to the virus and are then advised to self-isolate.

As soon as a user is marked positive for COVID-19, the app springs into life, ensuring the flow of crucial notifications through features like push notifications, awareness messages, and information sharing.

This makes the process accurate, time-sensitive, and incredibly effective.


Successful Contact Tracing Apps In Use Today:

In Singapore, the “TraceTogether” app is already being used to limit the spread of COVID-19, and to raise awareness. 500,000+ users were reported by CNBC to have used a Singapore-registered mobile number to download the TraceTogether app within the first 24 hours of its launch, showcasing its popularity, success, and need in times like these.

In Israel, the “Shield” (HaMagen) app is a government-run mobile app that warns of Coronavirus exposure. The UK and the Indian governments are currently working on similar apps for their countries as well.

Contact tracing mobile apps are providing a technological solution to limiting the spread of this novel Coronavirus, and the imperative is on world governments to leverage such platforms within their own countries, to improve their efforts of fighting COVID-19.

Morevoer, this would help the world realize that despite apps being huge revenue churners, they can also play a significant role in mitigating the impact of such a crisis because of their widespread reach.


How Contact Tracing Works?

There are essentially three-tiers to a COVID-19 contact tracing mobile application. Based on these three-tiers, the apps help assess the threat, provide tips to users, and ensures the effective execution of preventative measures.

1- Self-Assessment and Diagnosis:

Within the platform, a built-in AI-based chatbot is available that helps users self-assess or test for COVID-19 if they show similar symptoms. The users can be provided a questionnaire to fill, based on their symptoms.

5 days ago, Apple launched its very own COVID-19 screening app that provides similar functionalities to its users.

Based on the answers, the system will generate a pre-set response or diagnosis of the user’s condition and suggest the likelihood of them having COVID-19 based on their answers.

This questionnaire and the algorithm can be designed with the help of leading health experts, doctors, and scientists to ensure accurate identification of risk levels.

2- Background Assessment

The system can track a user’s behavior, providing necessary details such as:

  • Is the participant in isolation or not?
  • Are they maintaining social distancing?
  • Have they been quarantined in their home for 14 days?
  • What mode of transportation are they using?
  • Which COVID-19 prone area did they visit?
  • Are they a frequent traveler?
  • How many coronavirus risk-prone people they have been in contact with?

This collection of this crucial data translates into timely monitoring activity, aiding the process of sending out alerts and notifications, running awareness campaigns through the app, and so on.

This ensures that any at-risk individuals are promptly updated on relevant news such as potential contact with a COVID-19 patient, a new case of Coronavirus in their vicinity, and high-risk areas that they should avoid.

Structure of Contact Tracing Mobile Apps:

Whereas the structure of the app can differentiate between different projects, depending on the mobile app development company that develops the COVID-19 contact tracing app, most apps operating in this genre are using Open Source code like the Israeli government’s app “Shield” which is open-source, with the code readily available on Github.

App developers and companies can learn a great deal from the work and research that went behind the development of the Shield(HaMagen) App.

The flow A Content Tracing Application And Key Features

1. Download

2. Profile Setup

2.1. Personal Detail

Add your personal details to set up your profile.

3. Self-Assessment

As described above, you can run a self-diagnosis test for risk identification.

4. Background tracking and assessment

Background tracking allows the app to keep you and others around you safe from potential exposure to the virus.

The app will keep tracing the users and make a trip diary for the users. In order to achieve this, the app makes use of Bluetooth signals

5. Contact Tracing :

Mobile devices with the app installed exchange short-distance Bluetooth signals when in range with other app users and their mobile devices.

These encounters are recorded with regards to duration and location, for 21 days to ensure that this information is accounted for if a case of COVID-19 arises in the recorded location or the user’s themselves.

6. Route Planning:

The app provides details with regards to high-risk routes and low-risk routes for users to use, in case of necessary travels. This is also done through big-data platforms and is useful for users to identify if they’ve been to high-risk areas or not.

If they have visited those areas, then it is best for them to self-isolate for 14 days to ensure they were not infected by the virus.

7. Notifications and Alerts:

Notifications and Alerts are a crucial part of the COVID-19 contact tracing apps.

These notifications and alerts provide personalized news, updates, and tips to users depending on the probability of them being exposed to the virus, based on the information mentioned above.

This ensures that users make educated decisions, self-isolate when necessary, avoid high-risk areas, know if they’ve come into contact with a possible carrier, and follow social distancing protocols with diligence.

Privacy Concerns Of Contact Tracing Apps:

One of the biggest criticism of contact tracing apps is concerns with regards to privacy. A superficial analysis of the app will make it sound like a privacy nightmare, but when you look at it with a bit of depth, you realize that it’s not a breach of privacy, especially given the circumstances and what’s at stake.

Here are some facts about privacy with regards to contact tracing apps for COVID-19.

• The use of the app is optional, not compulsory, meaning people can opt-out of it. Although, given the circumstances, people should definitely sign up for apps like these.

• The data logs are stored on the individual’s mobile devices with encryption. The information about potential close contacts is not stored using phone numbers but through “cryptographically generated temporary IDs.

• Any location data collected by contact tracing apps remain on the phone itself. All necessary data processing happens on the mobile device itself and is not shared with any external or third-parties.

• Those diagnosed with COVID-19 have to voluntarily provide their location history to the application for use, which is driven by a JSON file that is updated every hour with new and more accurate data.

• Provisions are made to ensure secure code development that dictates that data is stored securely on the device and not on remote servers to prevent data leaks from within the application.

• All communications channels are completely secured and encrypted.

These provisions ensure that user data remains in the hand of users and is not shared with any other external sources, ensuring the safety and security of the users of contact tracing apps.

Other Measures Taken To Mitigate The Harms of COVID-19

5G technology

Across the world, 5g vendors are providing 5g services to temporary labs that are set up to provide testing facilities for COVID-19.

In South Korea, drive-thru labs have been established, which are providing citizens the ability to get tested for COVID-19 in a matter of minutes. Within the drive-thru, you submit a swab, which is immediately tested for the virus.

You can collect your report in approximately 5 minutes. If you test positive, a team will guide you immediately to a COVID-19 isolation ward. If it’s negative, you can collect your report and head back home, hopefully still dedicated to social distancing.

Facial Recognition

Facial recognition technology is being used in a number of ways in countries as a surveillance tool. Technology companies are merging thermal imaging and facial recognition with surveillance drones, for random temperature monitoring.

If a citizen shows signs of elevated temperature, they are immediately flagged and requested to self-isolate until they can get tested. This is a great tool that ensures two things.

• Anyone with symptoms in public is recognized and isolated to limit the spread and break the chain of COVID-19.

• For people who have been flagged, are in isolation wards, are abiding by expert advice with regards to habits, movements, interactions, and the rules of isolation. For the general public, it is a tool that helps governments ensure that social distancing measures are not being violated in public spaces.

Robots and Autonomous Vehicles

Robots and autonomous vehicles are being used in different industries to perform tasks that don’t require a human presence.

In the transportation and delivery industry, autonomous cars are being used to deliver essential goods to places. Instead of risking a driver, these cars are being used for the transportation of medical equipment and items of necessities to limit the spread of the virus.

In the healthcare industry, robots are being used to sanitize and disinfect environments and perform routine tasks that are involved in dealing with a victim of COVID-19, in limiting the interaction between doctors and patients.

These uses are crucial to flatten the curve, as they ensure a reduced probability of virus transmission from one person to another by limiting human interaction.

Artificial Intelligence and Big Data

We’ve already talked about how Artificial Intelligence and Big Data is being used and can be used within contact tracing mobile apps.

Apart from that, these two technologies are also being leveraged to find a potential cure for COVID-19.

AI-backed drug discovery platforms are being used to comb through extensive medical records and history to identify new molecules that might be effective in curing the novel Coronavirus, or already approved drugs that might work, based on its compound history of fighting similar viruses.

Manually, this would take too long for medical experts and health experts to conduct this research. Big Data and AI are leading the drug discovery race with rapid analysis and results.

AI is also being used for image processing, and CT scans for diagnosis based on symptoms, both at testing facilities and for remote diagnosis. One such software was developed by InterVision, a Beijing based Technology Company.

This could improve the discovery time of the drug, although that remains to be seen, given that discovery is simply not enough. There needs to be enough data to allow human trials, and only if those trials succeed, can we hope for mass-scale development of a vaccine or cure.

Technology As A Long-Term Solution To Pandemics – The Future of Contact Tracing Apps.

In these unprecedented times of peril, technology is our one long-term solution to this pandemic and future pandemics.

From drug discovery to identifying data patterns to predict future outbreaks, allowing early prevention is all possible with Artificial Intelligence and Big Data platforms.

Autonomous vehicles are crucial to limit interaction and scale social distancing measures. Chatbots, COVID-19 screening apps, and Contact tracing apps for Coronavirus are crucial for assessment, awareness, and prevention of the spread of infections such as COVID-19.

The burden is on COVID-19 contact tracing app development companies to provide their resources and services to improve our defense mechanisms and create a meaningful difference in the efforts to flatten the curve.

In order to develop a contact tracing app, it is crucial to understand the features that are essential to users and provide the most important information. This includes information on at-risk zones, notifications, and alerts for potential exposure, and guidelines based on different situations, to make sure that people make the best decisions that take them closer to reducing the chances of exposure to COVID-19.

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