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Governments across the world are deploying or developing digital apps for contact tracing, using smartphones to keep track of who an infected person has encountered.
FREMONT, CA: As the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic continues, much of the globe is pinning its expectations of easing lockdowns on being able to quickly identify people who are exposed to the virus. But contact tracing is generally a laborious, slow process that depends on in-person interviews and detective work. Enter the smartphone, a new kind of app aims to automate the process of tracing a persons' movements to find people they might have contacted and possibly notify those people at the earliest possible stage.
Over the past few months, developers across the globe have been racing to develop protocols that can win the trust and gain wide public adoption. Governments across the world are also either implementing or developing digital versions of contact tracing, using smartphones and Bluetooth to keep track of its people. So even as more countries' apps go live, social distancing will continue to be the major way for people to safeguard themselves from the pandemic.
To make this better, developers could add a feature that works in a similar method to how fitness tracking apps give feedback on a person's daily performance to help them do a little better tomorrow. Apps could tell people how many people they are coming into contact with each day, and what kind of risk profile that presents in front of them – comparing them with other users without giving any sensitive private data away. The data could also differentiate between long and short encounters. Users could then track their efforts at distancing each other in real-time.
Beyond concerns over privacy, a practical challenge to phone-based contact tracing is making accurate measurements of how close two devices are. Another challenge is making sure that enough people download the app to make it effective. Apart from these, contact tracing apps present an opportunity to introduce deep insights into distancing, without needing any data collection or sharing. This feels like an easy win that governments should seriously consider.